We Owe an Indescribable Debt to van Gogh's Sister-in-Law

Jo van Gogh-Bonger got his paintings out into the world
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 25, 2021 1:26 PM CDT

(Newser) – As the saying goes, "Behind every great man is a great woman"—even if it's not his woman. In a lengthy piece for the New York Times Magazine, Russell Shorto makes the case that this applies to Vincent van Gogh and his sister-in-law, Jo van Gogh-Bonger, whose "full story has only recently been uncovered." That's thanks to Hans Luijten, who spent 15 years working on what would become a six-volume edition of the 902 letters written by van Gogh. Luijten says that in reading the artist's correspondence with his brother, he began to "see that [Jo] was the spider in the web." And he managed, in 2009, to get the family's permission to access Jo's diary. Luijten published the resulting All for Vincent in 2019, and Shorto reports that it remains only available in Dutch, and is therefore only slowly cementing Jo's true legacy.

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Jo spent just 21 months as the wife of Theo van Gogh—he died six months after his 37-year-old brother, at the age of 33, leaving Jo a 28-year-old widow with an infant and 400 paintings. She opened a boardinghouse to support herself and then set out to do what Theo had asked of her: get van Gogh's work "seen and appreciated as much as possible." Though she lacked any background in the art business, she devoured works of art criticism as well as the brothers' letters to each other, and then began approaching art critics, with no success. Jo became increasingly convinced that people would open their minds to the art if only they could understand how they intersected with van Gogh's life. She shared his letters, and began sparking interest among galleries and museums. Within 14 years she managed to arrange the exhibit that established van Gogh "as a major figure of the modern era." (Read the incredible full piece, which explains the "tricks of the trade" that she learned.)

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