How do you know if a museum holds a
? 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.