When Jo was 28, she lost the love of her life. Her husband Theo van Gogh died, leaving Jo behind with their baby son and a flat full of artworks by his brother Vincent.
In the years after Theo's death, Vincent van Gogh's work became world-famous. That was largely thanks to Jo. Why was she so committed to Vincent's art?
Heiress to hundreds of paintings
Jo and Theo had been together for less than two years when he died in 1891. She suddenly had to provide for herself and her son, who was still a young baby. And what was she to do with the hundreds of Vincent’s paintings that Theo had left to her?
Fulfilling Theo’s wish
Theo always sought to raise public awareness of his brother’s work. Jo wanted to fulfil this wish, in memory of her husband.
She moved from Paris to the Dutch town of Bussum, where she opened a guest house. Bussum was home to many writers and artists, whom Jo became acquainted with. They were able to help her find her way in the art world.
Make Vincent's work known
Jo was smart. She organised sales exhibitions to boost the visibility of Vincent’s work. This helped pique the interest of potential buyers. She made many strategic sales of the artworks: to collections accessible to the public, and all around the world. This meant that as many people as possible could see Vincent’s work.
Largest ever Van Gogh exhibition
In 1905, Jo pulled off her most significant feat to date: the largest ever retrospective of Vincent’s work, held at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. More than 480 artworks were on display. Following this exhibition, the prices of Vincent’s work rose rapidly.
The preparations for the exhibition reveal Jo's exceptional organisational skills. She arranged everything from the choice of works to be exhibited to payments to the attendants.
The exhibition featured a cross-section of Vincent's work. Some found the work too modern, with its bright colours and expressive paint strokes. But there was also high praise. The Bedroom was one of the works on display.
Van Gogh’s letters
In the meantime, Jo had started another major project: publishing Vincent’s letters to his brother Theo. Selecting and editing the letters not only brought her closer to the artist, but also to her deceased husband, as the brothers were close and wrote to each other frequently.
Jo categorised and edited the letters, and wrote a biographical introduction about Vincent van Gogh. For years, this text would remain the source for other texts about the artist. Thanks to the publication of the letters in 1914, appreciation rose not only for Vincent as an artist, but also for him as a human being. Thanks to the letters, people got to know his dreams, desires and struggles. And, of course, his views on art.
Letters in English
Jo had studied English and worked steadily on an English translation of the letters. When she died in 1925, Jo had translated about two-thirds of the letters. The English edition of the letters was published four years later.
Sacrifice for Vincent’s glory
Between 1891 and 1925, Jo sold nearly 200 of Vincent’s artworks. But there was one work that she and her son had difficulty parting with. They still owned two of the five sunflowers paintings, and loved the works dearly. Jo eventually sold one of the paintings to the National Gallery in London in 1924.
‘It is a sacrifice for the sake of Vincent’s glory’, wrote Jo to the director of the museum.
Thanks to ‘sacrifices’ such as this, Jo was able to fulfil her wish, and that of her late husband Theo. When she died in 1925, Vincent’s work was world-famous and exhibited at museums all around the world.
At the same time, Jo always knew exactly which works she did not want to sell. For example, because certain works were of emotional value to the family or because they were favourites of hers, such as The Harvest. This core collection was to stay in the family.
Continuing the dream
After Jo passed away, her son Vincent transferred the artworks that were still in the family to a foundation. He was also one of the founders of the Van Gogh Museum. It was his greatest wish that the collection be permanently accessible to all.
This way Vincent continued working to realise his parent's dream. To this day you can admire the core collection of the Van Gogh family in the Van Gogh Museum.
I am delighted that after years of indifference from the public towards Vincent and his work, to feel that the battle has been won.
Jo Van Gogh-Bonger