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Review | Van Gogh’s greatest marketing machine: New book reveals how the artist’s sister-in-law handled his legacy

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Jo van Gogh-Bonger (1862-1925) was a remarkable woman, and her story deserves to be told at length. Hans Luijten’s rich and in-depth biography, originally published in Dutch in 2019, serves her admirably, documenting her loyalty and determination as she devoted her life to the legacy of her beloved husband, the merchant of art Theo van Gogh, and his painter brother, Vincent.

Jo Bonger married Théo in April 1889, at the age of 26, and moved with him to Paris. But he died in January 1891 after just 17 months of marriage, leaving her with their baby, also named Vincent. She only briefly met her brother-in-law but inherited responsibility for the hundreds of canvases and drawings he left behind. She returned to the Netherlands and for many years ran a guest house in Bussum, near Amsterdam. In the meantime, she forged concrete relationships with artists, writers and dealers who wanted, according to their different points of view, to promote Vincent van Gogh.

This interest and support for Van Gogh’s work after his death in 1890 came immediately from fellow artist Émile Bernard and writers like Julien Leclercq. And less than two years after his suicide, exhibitions took place at the Barc de Boutteville gallery in Paris and the Kunstkring in The Hague, with Belgians and Germans equally quick to showcase his work. But this interest, which soon became demand, had to be managed. Between 1900 and the major retrospective of over 400 works in 1905, held at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, there were 15 exhibitions, all of which requested loans. Dealers such as Ambroise Vollard in Paris and Paul Cassirer in Berlin negotiated to buy works, and surreptitious attempts by the Bernheim-Jeune gallery and wealthy Hélène Kröller-Müller to acquire the entire collection were to be foiled.

This practical and careful Dutchman bourgeois orchestrated the posthumous fascination with the life and work of his late brother-in-law

The biography is in many ways the story of how this practical and careful Dutchman bourgeois orchestrated the posthumous fascination with the life and work of his late brother-in-law. Van Gogh-Bonger felt a duty to Vincent the artist and to Theo her late husband, and wanted to make the world aware of their brotherly bond, in honor of her short but happy marriage and also to fund young Vincent. By the time of her death in 1925, she had sold nearly 200 paintings and more than 50 works on paper, leaving enough for her son to found the Van Gogh Museum, which opened in Amsterdam in 1973.

An educated woman who had taught English and translated novels for Dutch newspapers, Van Gogh-Bonger was aware that their correspondence brought the dead to life. In 1914 she published Vincent’s letters to Theo in three volumes, and by the time of her death had translated two-thirds of the artist’s letters into English. A serious and unhumorous personality, his later relations were not so fruitful, first with the libertine artist Isaac Israëls and then during his second marriage in 1901 to another painter, the neurotic Johan Gosschalk. We learn that Van Gogh-Bonger was motivated by her pious Protestant education but also by modern trends; she was a founding member of the Dutch Social Democratic Labor Party in 1894 and a strong supporter of women’s rights.

Luijten was one of the editors of Van Gogh’s correspondence, published in 2009. His indomitable archival research brings Van Gogh-Bonger to life, citing school report cards, his diary, and his early tricycle rides. There is much new material, such as the hundred letters Israels wrote to him, and many footnotes in the original languages ​​with English translations. A dedicated and determined woman was matched with a very fitting biography.

Jo van Gogh-Bonger: The woman who made Vincent famous, by Hans Luijten, translated by Lynne Richards. Published November 3 by Bloomsbury Publishing, 544 pages, 63 color and 67 b/w illustrations, £20 (hb)

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