How do you know if a museum holds a Van Gogh? Easy: The museum will emblazon the work on plates, scarves, and even iPhone cases. There will be postcards, posters, and Post-its featuring sunflowers and starry nights. Today, the work of Vincent van Gogh is instantly recognizable—and, by extension, highly marketable. Beyond the gift shop, his paintings routinely fetch millions of dollars at auction.
Van Gogh did not reach such renown through the brilliance of his artistry alone, however. Much of the current international fascination with him can be traced back to the work of one woman: Jo van Gogh-Bonger, his sister-in-law. At the time of the Dutch artist’s death in 1890, his genius had little market value, so Jo devised a careful, thoughtful marketing strategy to garner the interest of collectors, museums, critics, and the public. Her work provided a foundation upon which Van Gogh’s fame would continue to grow, eventually reaching unprecedented heights.
Johanna Gezina Bonger, who went by Jo, was born in October 1862 to a middle-class family in Amsterdam. Known to her family as “Net,” Jo lived a relatively quiet life with her parents and nine siblings. She attended primary school, learned to play the piano, and earned a teaching diploma. In 1887, she was teaching English at a girl’s school when Theo van Gogh, the artist’s sibling and her brother’s friend, passionately proposed to her after a short, infrequent acquaintance. In a letter written the same year, Theo confessed to a love-at-first-sight scenario—that “the first time [he] laid eyes” on Jo, he saw something that he “had sought out in vain in others.”
But to Jo, the proposal came as a surprise—and not a welcome one. “I could not say ‘yes’ to something like that,” Jo wrote in her diary, following the impassioned incident. She was attracted to the idea of the varied, intellectual life offered by Theo, but not to the man himself. “Why does my heart feel numb when I think of him!” she wrote.
However awkward the rejection must have been, Jo agreed to let Theo write to her. The pair exchanged more than 70 letters over almost two years, and their connection deepened until Jo, too, fell in love. In 1889, the couple married, moved to Paris, and, one year later, welcomed a little boy, Vincent Willem, named for Theo’s dear brother.
But the couple’s happiness did not last. In July 1890, Vincent van Gogh was shot in the abdomen (most believe he shot himself) and died at age 37. Ill and heartbroken, Theo died six months later. By January 1891, the 28-year-old Jo van Gogh was widowed and left to care for both a one-year-old child and stacks of her brother-in-law’s artwork. Hans Luijten, Jo’s biographer, paints an image of her sitting “there in Paris on the third floor with hundreds of paintings and hundreds of drawings and thousands of letters.”
When Theo died, Jo and her son inherited all of Vincent’s work—and the work it would take to honor him. While “artists around him knew him, admired him, [and] appreciated him, they just didn’t have the money,” says Kimberly A. Jones, curator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Jo recognized the value of his work, but, in the market, he hadn’t yet received the recognition he deserved.
To achieve that rightful recognition for Vincent, Jo would have to publicize and protect his oeuvre. “A lot of people were encouraging her to sell the art, to be done with it,” adds Jones. But Theo had been Vincent’s patron, in addition to his brother and confidante. Rather than dump the works and move on, Jo decided to complete what her late husband had started. Vincent became her cause. In 1891, Jo wrote in her journal that she was “not without things to do,” for she was obligated to “Vincent’s work: to make sure that it is seen and appreciated as much as possible.”
Jo took a multi-pronged approach to widen appreciation for Vincent van Gogh. First, she left France and moved to Holland, where she started a boarding house in Bussum, a village outside of Amsterdam. The business provided the financial support she needed to care for her child. But why did she pick Bussum as the place to embark upon the journey of bringing Van Gogh’s art to the world?
Simple: It was an artistic and intellectual hub. “There were all kinds of art critics living there,” Luijten says. Among the village’s residents was Jan Veth, a painter, poet, critic, professor, and friend to Jo. He was prominent among Dutch art circles, and his Bussum home was a salon of sorts. Jo once referred to his home as “the center of civilization.”
Jo Van Gogh-Bonger with her son Vincent Willem at the studio of Raoul Saisset, Paris, 1890. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Theo van Gogh, 1887. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Through capitalizing on these friendly relationships rather than a brick-and-mortar gallery, Jo cultivated a critical following for Van Gogh, as well as champions for herself. “You can hang a picture on a wall in a gallery, but that’s not how people get to know an artist or his work,” said Luijten.
Between 1892 and 1900, with her Bussum connections and friends throughout Holland, Jo was able to coordinate around 20 exhibitions of Van Gogh’s work. The exhibitions were carefully arranged, with lesser-known works placed alongside others considered “undisputed masterpieces,” Luijten said, to drum up their artistic and monetary value. Luijten explains that some of Van Gogh’s works, like his famous sunflowers, became more “well-known because [Jo] loaned [them] so many times that people would know [them].”
The grassroots strategy worked, with critics writing articles about each exhibition as they went up. “Ever since I’ve been here in Holland, people are beginning to be very interested in the work on Vincent, and there’s hardly a newspaper that doesn’t say something about him,” Jo wrote in her diary in 1892.
Next, to bring Van Gogh’s work to an international audience, Jo established herself in art circles across Western Europe. First, she reached out to the artist’s friends and admirers across the globe. She also contacted important dealers in the Netherlands, Germany, and France, including Paul Cassirer and Johannes Hendricus de Bois. She offered them 10 to 15 percent commission on the works they sold by Van Gogh, using their reach to place his works in public and private collections the world over.
“Jo did not run an art gallery in the strict sense of the word,” Luijten adds. With the support of her dealers, “she offered works for sale and negotiated the asking prices, depending on the potential customer.”
A letter from Vincent Van Gogh to his brother Theo Van Gogh, with a sketch of The Potato Eaters, April 1885. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
But museum collections were really her endgame. “To her, the most important aspect was international recognition of Van Gogh’s work, the inclusion in public art collections,” says Luijten.
After a decade of effort, Jo was substantially closer to achieving public recognition for Van Gogh’s work after building a huge foundation of exhibitions, loans, and connections. In 1901, she married for a second time, again to an artist. Her second husband, Johan Cohen Gosschalk, would help her efforts, too.
Perhaps her most significant achievement was a colossal, landmark retrospective of Van Gogh’s work at the Stedelijk Museum in 1905. The show, financed by Jo, cemented the artist’s importance and sent the asking price for his work even higher, Luijten said.
With the artist’s work now broadly known, Jo turned to his letters. During his life, Van Gogh was a prolific letter-writer. Jo used this, too, as a way to promote his work. Over several years, Jo compiled and edited a tome of Van Gogh’s letters to Theo. She wrote a biographical introduction (which was, “for years and years, the most important information about van Gogh that people had,” according to Luijten), and even translated two-thirds of the book into English. In 1914, she published the first Dutch and German editions of the book under the title Brieven aan zijn broeder (Letters to His Brother).
At the time, even though appreciation of his work had grown, many people didn’t know how to look at a Van Gogh painting, nor how to understand it—but “the juxtaposition of the letters and the art…strengthened each other,” Luijten says. “As soon as people knew more about what Van Gogh thought about making this art, admiration grew.” In other words, the letters provided another way to access the artist.
Of course, Jo had critics, who sometimes laced their comments with attacks on her age and gender. Although Van Gogh’s work was respected, critics falsely believed that Jo wasn’t knowledgeable enough to carry out her task. One art critic berated her over an 1892 exhibition, cawing that it irritated him “when someone gushes fanatically on a subject she knows nothing about.…It is schoolgirlish twaddle, nothing more.”
But Jo handled Van Gogh’s market in a way that was anything but childish or amateur. She resisted flooding the market with his work, instead slowly releasing paintings and drawings for sale over several years. In her lifetime, Jo sold at least 190 paintings and 55 drawings by van Gogh, Luijten said, including one of his Sunflowers to the National Gallery in London in 1924—the crowning achievement of a lifetime’s work.
After Jo died in 1925, her son—also named Vincent—continued his mother’s efforts to foster the legacy of his namesake, going on to oversee the transfer of the remaining collection to the Vincent van Gogh Foundation in the 1960s. Today, Van Gogh is collected and admired in every corner of the world, and his letters have been translated into countless languages.
There is a (perhaps obvious) question that arises, one that Jones asks: What really made Jo devote her life to her brother-in-law? Was she simply honoring her husband, doing his work? Or did she find her own personal sense of purpose in it?
Jo certainly had regrets about her life, wishing she had devoted more of her life to the socialist movement. She even co-founded the Amsterdam Social-Democratic Women’s Propaganda Club in an effort to improve working-class conditions and education in the city. But, for Jo, raising a son and promoting an understanding of Vincent and Theo constituted her main work.
In the end, Jo described the joy that came from the tireless work of bringing Van Gogh’s unique vision to the world. “All of this,” she wrote in her diary, “is very satisfying for me, for it’s the only thing that I can do in the memory of my husband and of Vincent.”
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