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kottke.org posts about Jo van Gogh-Bonger

“The Woman Who Made van Gogh”

posted by Jason Kottke   May 11, 2021

Self-portrait of Vincent van Gogh

There are certain writers that, when I see their byline, I read their stuff, even if it takes me a few weeks to find the time. Ever since reading his excellent The Island at the Center of the World, Russell Shorto has been one of those writers. His latest piece, The Woman Who Made van Gogh, tells the story of Jo van Gogh-Bonger who, after both her husband Theo and her brother-in-law Vincent died within a year and a half of each other, worked tirelessly for decades to get Vincent’s work out into the world.

The brothers’ dying so young, Vincent at 37 and Theo at 33, and without the artist having achieved renown — Theo had managed to sell only a few of his paintings — would seem to have ensured that Vincent van Gogh’s work would subsist eternally in a netherworld of obscurity. Instead, his name, art and story merged to form the basis of an industry that stormed the globe, arguably surpassing the fame of any other artist in history. That happened in large part thanks to Jo van Gogh-Bonger. She was small in stature and riddled with self-doubt, had no background in art or business and faced an art world that was a thoroughly male preserve. Her full story has only recently been uncovered. It is only now that we know how van Gogh became van Gogh.

Because of her work, Vincent van Gogh is a household name all over the world and even the way people think about artists and their art forever changed.