Vincent van Gogh died in 1890. Theo van Gogh, art dealer and brother of Vincent, died six months later, in 1891. Johanna, Theo’s wife, inherited all the shop remainders including virtually all of Vincent’s work. She soon moved with her small son from Paris to Bussum near Amsterdam. Johanna, age 29, went into distribution mode.
Reading the brothers’ correspondence, she became convinced of her brother-in-law’s genius and set about to do the right thing by him. “I am living wholly with Theo and Vincent,” she wrote in her diary, “Oh, the infinitely delicate, tender and loving quality of that relationship.” Placing work in various commercial galleries in the Netherlands, she also arranged for the gifting of works to strategic museums. It was hard going at first — people laughed at Vincent’s work. The critics were skeptical at best, but in the end her writings and her persistent, visionary advocacy fanned the Vincent flames. She typed and revised the Theo-Vincent letters, finally publishing many of them in Dutch in 1914. When she died in 1925, she was still working on letter 526. Johanna also assisted in publishing a handbook for detecting Vincent forgeries.
In the “all’s well that ends well” story of artists’ lives and successes, there are worthwhile prerequisites. Some artists try some of them so the fruits of their labour can be enjoyed while their creators are still walking around. Vincent, who never saw a guilder from his art, had benefit of all five of the prerequisites:
Distinctive, recognizable style
Limited supply (200, plus drawings)
Controlled distribution (one caring person in charge)
Story (failure, poverty, passion, health issues, ear-off)
Tragic, preferably early, end (shot himself)
A shot of nepotism helps too. The van Goghs and the Bongers (Johanna’s maiden name) were educated, professional, well connected and upwardly mobile. Vincent was the black sheep. It was Vincent’s publisher-uncle C. M. van Gogh who was first in print with Vincent’s story. Another uncle designed the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Johanna was herself a sensitive, literate yet practical type who spoke and wrote beautifully in three languages. After thirty years of hard work, she finally and graciously consented to allow England’s National Gallery to buy Vincent’s “Sunflowers.”
PS: “Everything is but a dream!” (Johanna van Gogh, 1891)
Esoterica: It may take bereavement, another generation, or a canny dealer to see preciousness and perhaps value in a body of work. The combination of hoarding and distribution is part of the art. Work should not be too readily released or made commonly available to just anyone. Stratospheric prices come after the groundwork is laid. After that, as in the National Gallery, “Sunflowers” are now made available on mugs, calendars, shirts and brassieres. Theo and Vincent now lie side by side in the cemetery at Auvers-sur-Oise. If those two idealists hear about those mugs, they’ll be rotisserating in their graves.
Themes that never go out of style
by Rhonda Bobinski, Red Lake, ON, Canada
Vincent van Gogh — the quintessential tortured soul — living for his art. It makes for an excellent story that I delight in retelling to my students year after year. It’s my lure and a way of even inspiring some students to carry on into the post-secondary art field. Through van Gogh, my students learn to never give up even when the whole world may seem turned against them. They learn that sometimes you need to create, even when others cannot understand your need to do so. They learn about struggle and desperation and desire. They learn that they can express themselves through colours and lines. Teaching about Vincent isn’t at all about technique, even though what he created was phenomenally unique and visually intriguing. Most of all, my students walk away with a feeling of compassion and consideration for those that may be less privileged than they are and learn that maybe (even though they are tumultuous teenagers) just maybe, they don’t have it so tough after all. Those are themes that never go out of style.
Gumption, dead and alive
by John Ferrie, Vancouver, BC, Canada
This proves once again that 99% of being a successful artist is about marketing and promotion — 1% is about talent, frustration, anxiety and pleasure and pain (and you don’t have to cut your ear off for that!). You can have talent pouring out of your fingers, but unless you have the gumption and move your work, nothing is going to happen. This is the case with van Gogh, Mapplethorpe, Damien Hirst, the list is endless. Promote, promote, promote! People are much more savvy now, and with media coverage and the exploding Internet, the possibilities of reaching a global market these days is within everyone’s grasp. Imagine the limitless possibilities of van Gogh if only television were around. And for those artists sitting back waiting for the National Gallery to buy their painting… “Everything is but a dream.”
by Pamela King, Australia
I have been an artist, student and teacher for many years and I had never heard of Johanna. I am sure that for every famous artist, there is an unsung hero/heroine who sacrificed everything to ensure the artist got the recognition he/she deserved. It is especially heartening when you consider the lack of recognition women receive, when they were often the ones making it possible for their famous husbands/relatives to succeed by supporting them, often to the detriment of their own careers. Lee Krasner is a great example of this.
Understanding van Gogh
by Brenda Pruet Kunkel, Indiana, USA
It wasn’t until I read your letter about Johanna van Gogh that it finally hit me how precious is the work we create. The love of art that consumes all of us, that feeling of being the vehicle to release art in various works of expression, the difficulty (work) to produce the vision we see in our heads and the emotion that lies within, the acceptance, the tragedies that artists endure… both past and present. I simply cried when I read this letter. I couldn’t even explain why I cried. It was just something that I understood but couldn’t tell you why. Not knowing the complete history of Vincent van Gogh, this information you have sent me has made me appreciate and understand him much more than before. And maybe understand myself better. The love and perseverance of his sister-in-law and all of those who were involved were true believers and have given us the gift of Vincent by sharing his work.
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
I find it disturbing that even though Johanna worked hard to present Vincent in a dignified and realistic manner, he is still presented and marketed as this madman genius by many today. If you read his letters to Theo, you immediately see a very studious, intelligent, insightful artist who went about training himself in a very careful way. He studied and absorbed all sorts of influences from many disparate painters and worked extremely hard to realize his vision of what painting should be. The real tragedy was the medicine was unavailable to curb the epileptic seizures that marred his final years. He had no control over when and how severe the seizures would be and lived in terror over them.
His friend is yet another hero who helped him to produce the much beloved paintings of his final period. Despite his problems, people responded to Vincent’s humanity as we still do today. He was a flawed person who worked heroically against great odds to realize his potential as an artist. Like all of us in art, he benefited greatly from the help of a few equally heroic benefactors who loved and supported him in his efforts. The benefactors became a big part of his story. Without benefactors, no artist would be able to succeed. The lone artist against the world saga is an enduring and false bit of mythology that Vincent van Gogh himself would be happy to dispel if his voice could be heard today.
A lot of luck?
by Corazon Watkins
I am a full time artist making art for over 20 years. Got my MFA degree in Fine Arts and I continue to educate myself on the latest “trend” in the world of art. My work is very contemporary but I guess I am not sophisticated enough to understand how and why some paintings done with “scribbles,” etc. that make it on the cover of Art in America are different from the “dots,” “doodles” and scribbles that I or other artists paint. Without sounding defensive, I just truly want to understand how art critics decide what are good and bad “scribbles.” There are so many talented and good artists but are never recognized. I feel it is not enough to be a good, hard-working artist. It takes a lot of good luck to make it in the Art World.
Exposure through replication
by Tina Lindsey, Dallas, GA, USA
My blessed father, the artist Victor Denfrey Steele, passed away on May 2nd, exactly two weeks ago. He has a collection of work that is so beautiful, and I will be handling it for the most part as I have for some time. In the Esoterica portion of your Johanna van Gogh letter, you wrote about “Sunflowers” being now made available on mugs, calendars, shirts and brassieres. That kind of hit a little too close to home. Some of my father’s work was added, along with some of my own early work, to a popular site that offers such items, not brassieres (smiling) as art gift items. I never thought it might devalue his or my work, but rather assist in a few pieces being seen by more people than those who might come across our website. I considered it as a way for those who couldn’t afford an original to enjoy it on a smaller scale on a gift item. I also thought that if any particular image became very popular it would result in the original’s value increasing as well. Some originals on the gift item site have already been sold, others not yet.
(RG note) Thanks, Tina. A year or so ago my assistant Carol Ann went to New York on holiday and brought me back a coffee mug from the MOMA. On it there is a cartoon with a couple of ladies entering a Museum Gift Shop where there is a huge pile of mugs for sale. One lady says to the other: “He was such a great artist but in his lifetime he never sold a single mug.”
by Chris Bingle, Gloucestershire, UK
And earrings, fridge-magnets, address books, gardening journals, tea-cozies, and mousepads.
In the National Gallery recently, I found that one of my all time favorite landscape paintings had drawn the eye of the Marketing Department. Lake Keitele by Finnish painter Akseli Gallen Kallela (1865-1931), it hangs in the room with the post-Impressionists. It is a painting of a lake, with an island, and a gleam of distant sky right at the top — it’s all water, basically, with cats-paws of wind flickering the surface. It is icy blue, mystical and stunning. I always go and see it when I’m there. Clearly a lot of people feel the same, as the Marketing boys and girls have given it the above treatment. Looking at the assembled tat, I wondered what would induce anyone to part with their cash. It doesn’t devalue the original painting, but there’s no doubt that it trivializes the experience of it into an ‘I’ve been to the National Gallery’ souvenir. It happens with so many paintings; Van Gogh’s Sunflowers are a case in point. It’s even inspired a range of bead necklaces.
The woman behind every man
by Patricia Peterson, New York, NY, USA
Despite the genius of Vincent and the enduring love and support Theo gave him, it would still be those wonderful qualities of their private lives rather than world renown without Johanna’s sensitive diligence and persistence, as you graciously remove from obscurity. There are countless instances of successful men accepting the complete support of a mother, wife or sister and also a daughter: Behind every successful man is a woman.
I lament the longer I hear the cry of feminists and all of the women sincerely desiring to make strides in all aspects of life, more times than not the hard life experience is the facts of no genuine support or downright sabotage in vast instances displayed as feminine incompetence, ignorance or innocence in the manner in which ‘business’ is conducted among women in 100% women’s organizations of every nature. Alternatively, the opposite is the over-used and ever present “bitch” but that set of behaviors is not hidden or the ever toxic, secret agenda.
Women portraying themselves without protest from women as lacking experience to be other than ignorant, incompetent or innocent in part or whole, due to growing pains and the excuse that they “mean well” are the industrialized version of genital mutilationwhich is conducted by women on women with societal endorsement by men. I hope upon hope in the art world this might show signs of evolution toward development of decent and effective, positive behavior and organizational patterns as soon as possible because visual artists have been known to lead the torch, as abundantly explained in the illuminating BBC production, How Art Made the World.
by Paul Edmund Herman, Arcos de la Frontera, Spain
What you say is true, Vincent had the five pre-requisites once he died (though 200 paintings would be considered the bare minimum worthwhile promoting (financially) by a professional gallery today) but still, it is easy to explain his unusual absence of success during his life-time. I say unusual because, except for a very few artists other than Van Gogh, among those now remembered by history, most were well-known and rich from their paintings during their careers.
Despite the five factors you mention in his favour he had others working against him:
1. Lack of charisma, an influence not only in its personal significance but as a professional consideration by agents who handle his work.
2. He had a very short career he entered into late and even then all of the Dutch work and most of the rest (until Arles) was not memorable. A ten year career most of which created forgettable paintings, a short time however talented one is, to achieve renown.
3. As minimal as it may have been, Theo’s financial support had Vincent living much more comfortably than he had as preacher among the potato eaters and certainly well enough off not to have to present his work for sale, something which, considering his lack of charm and history of failure, must not have been a pursuit he relished. None of his paintings sold during his life-time because no serious effort was made to offer them for sale…
In a way your fifth pre-requisite – death – really needs to be a pre-requisite where he was concerned. I can imagine him ruining all Joanna’s good work by behaving badly at one of his openings!
(RG note) Thanks, Paul. Several artists wrote to say that the number of paintings received by Johanna in 1891 was considerably more than I stated.
by Betty Dhont, Bowen Island, BC, Canada
In the mid-sixties I worked for the nephew of Vincent van Gogh (son of Theo), his name was Vincent as well. He was first and foremost an engineer by profession, but did anything in his power to preserve the Vincent van Gogh collection, which contained of course his paintings but also many letters to artists and dealers plus the painter’s own collection of work. This vast collection was owned by the Vincent van Gogh Foundation, and later this collection was given to the government of the Netherlands for 23 million in the 1960’s and under the stipulation that the Vincent van Gogh Museum would be built by the well known architect Rietveld. The nephew traveled many times to the US, France and other countries to accompany the wildly popular Van Gogh exhibitions and wrote many articles on the subject.
Giclees work against limited supply concept
by Karen Cooper, Spencer, Idaho, USA
What an interesting list you’ve published here! — #2 on the list, limited supply, takes a mind like mine immediately to the issue of, you guessed it, reproductions. Ironically, I was at a shop earlier this week where a sign proclaimed ‘fine art on canvas.’ The featured ‘paintings’ were giclees on stretchers, with that lovely added benefit of a few smears of paint over the top of it all. I remain firmly that giclees are not art, but merely copies that unscrupulous folk are passing off as ‘fine art.’ Your list causes me to wonder about the long term goals of the giclee-producing artists. Have they thought about their work and its effect, past the day-after-tomorrow? Possibly they need a copy of your letter.
by Jeanne Long, Minneapolis, MN, USA
Quite a different story here. Propped up paintings are frequently ignored, or casually scrutinized as to location, and whether it “really looked like that?” Titles are disparaged as “too flowery.” “How about ‘Main Street, High Noon’? Nothing annoying about that.” Occasionally, I plan my acceptance speech at an imaginary, lofty awards presentation, where I begin with, “I first want to thank my husband, who because of his constant criticism, pushed me to achieve new heights in the execution of my perceptions…”
Measure of success?
by Julie Allen, New Zealand
Last year I hosted a special studio gallery exhibition which by anyone’s standard was a thing of great beauty in relatively luxurious surroundings. All the art was beautifully and professionally framed, priced in the mid-ground place, at about $2000 each and I knew I wasn’t presenting any dud art at all. People turned up in droves, mostly friendly and interested. One guy sought me out and said “I know this is rude, but how much money do you make a year?” I stood there with my mouth open and couldn’t think of an instant reply, so he pushed on with “I mean, are you on the breadline?” My face must have been a real picture. I told him I wasn’t going to answer that kind of question, and he scurried out, never to return, which was a good thing! What I want to know is, why do people demand to know an artist’s income? You’d never dream of asking any other person this kind of question. Is it so they can decide in their own minds whether the artist ‘is any good’ or not? I don’t even consider success or failure from making art on financial return, because the rewards from making art come from so many areas, from downloading my own stuck emotional energy, to giving joy to others, spreading goodwill and so on. Plus of course the energetic exchange of money.
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Not easy to have luck
by Alan Feltus, Assisi, Italy
A list of prerequisites that might lead to greater success as an artist, perhaps a worthwhile offering, yes. Perhaps also crazily oversimplified and somehow beside the point. Yet such ideas are always worth pondering.
Most of us hope for success. We might measure our own success against the successes of artist friends and those we know about through art magazines, museum shows and the like. I used to believe the quality of our work was the most important thing. If an artist is exceptionally good he will be noticed and doors will open and once things start a momentum carries them along. And that does happen, to some extent. I still believe quality is the most important thing to concern ourselves with. We should do all we can to be as good as we can be. But I also know that success measured by reviews and exhibitions and sales is a relative thing. We can be somewhat successful. We can hope to be more successful. And success tends to have little to do with how good our work is. And who is to say what good work is? There are certainly no universally accepted standards in art. We rely on our own standards. We never stop learning and we hope our work continues to grow.
If I look again at your five prerequisites for success I suppose I can find validity in them but, of course, they want to be played with, thought about. Distinctive, recognizable style, for instance, yes, that can be seen in the work of all the greatest artists of all times. But I believe we have to find that through years of working. We can’t simply give our work a distinctive, recognizable style. That is something we find to be there in our work. We discover its presence and accept it for what it is. We don’t have a lot of choice in what form it takes. An illustrator might also try out a style on demand. A painter who does that is likely to be seen as dishonest. It isn’t true to the artist if it’s applied like a technique one adopts. One can’t choose to make what wants to be there on its own out of necessity.
What should be found in an artist’s work has more to do with passion, and that isn’t the same as choice. And all of what makes an artist’s work good comes of study and experience, in time. Art comes out of art. The best teachers are the works of great artists. We learn from art of all periods and cultures, some more than others according to our interests and what we have access to. The lessons are subtle and the learning is gradual. We learn to see the world in ways others don’t see the world. We become interested in other disciplines and all of that feeds our own work.
It would be nice if any list of five prerequisites for success would guarantee success. I don’t know how often such supposed prerequisites played in the lives of the most successful artists. It’s more complicated than that as we all know. Lucian Freud’s Benefits Supervisor Sleeping just broke all records for a work of art by a living artist, selling at 33.6 million dollars at Christies. Although the prices investor collectors pay for works of art are absolutely insane, that is happening. Freud’s best paintings are strong and beautiful and amazing. Many of his paintings are nowhere near that. Anyway, in his case I think fame and success is well deserved. However there are many living artists whose work is selling at hugely inflated prices for no reasons I can see other than marketing. The quality is sadly absent in so many cases. So perseverance and luck might belong on the list of prerequisites. Luck, unfortunately is not easy to have. What we have to be content with is working in a chosen field that we love and knowing we are doing what we are able to do to help our work to be seen and appreciated.
(RG note) Thanks, Alan. Benefits Supervisor Sleeping is a deeply moving celebration of obesity. At approximately $200,000.00 per pound, it’s the highest price anyone has ever paid for fat.
by Ion Danu, Sherbrooke, QC, Canada
Since all things connected with Vincent van Gogh are of great interest to me I’ve read with curiosity and pleasure your letter about Johanna Bonger van Gogh. Of course, in a short letter it’s not possible to write everything important… but I want to comment on some things you said.
First, I do not think Vincent (at least) would be “rotisserating” in his grave if he would see the enormous (and not always in good taste) multiplication of his works and the publicity around his name. He was a modest man, not unaware of his value, and he wrote more than once that he wanted to produce an art for the many humble people out there… For him (as it is, I suppose, for us) art was to be something to enlighten (even if only for a few moments) the life of people, all the people, and the more the merrier… Mugs and T-shirts are probably more in his views than a vault somewhere in Japan, where not even the owner enters more than a few times in ten years…
As for Johanna, who, indirectly, could have been one of the causes of his suicide (there are suggestions as to that in his last few letters…) I think that she did a tremendous (if not totally altruist) job in making Vincent known. I do not know if some guilt wasn’t a motivation for her, also… And I cannot condemn her totally for the censorship (some say even the destruction) of some of Vincent’s letters to Theo… We are humans, and feelings and self-preservation aren’t something to be blamed. But as you said so well, “bereavement” was a factor in her motivation and Vincent’s life and work fits so well in the myth of the “artiste maudit” that it’s not hard to understand for me how he become the universally famous painter of his time… Nowadays, even if you cut your ear and put a bullet in your belly you wouldn’t be as famous as he was… Not to forget the detail of his body of works (paradoxically, a favourable factor in his glory) some of them so intense, so powerful that only the French word éblouissantes can render the impression they make…
As a funny detail, Sir Ernst Gombrich, the great art historian and all, he never corrected the unbelievable error he made in his famous The Story of Art, p. 435: for Gombrich, Vincent’s suicide took place in January 1891 (which is, evidently, the time of Theo’s death).
acrylic painting (24 x 24 inches)
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Mel Davenport of Cedar Hill, TX, USA who wrote, “The storyteller in me just loves it when you tell historical tales of the artists. I have read several biographies of van Gogh, but that’s the first I have heard of Johanna’s dedication, most just end with Theo’s death. Did you get it from a particular biography, if so, which?”
(RG note) Thanks, Mel. I got some of my material from an excellent memoir of Johanna, written by V. W. van Gogh (her son, and Vincent’s nephew).
And also Nancy Oppenheimer-Smolen of Seneca, SC, USA who wrote, “I wonder if you would comment on the recent sale of a Francis Bacon painting at Sotheby’s for $86 million. It seems the emperor has no clothes and his glasses are broken.”
(RG note) Thanks, Nancy. Triptych demonstrates that art is also a commodity that, when under some degree of control, can be bought and held, and probably resold someday for a higher price. In some circles it’s called “The Greater Fool Theory.” A high price today somewhat guarantees a high price tomorrow. The speculation sometimes fails, however. Paintings by Adolph William Bouguereau (1825-1905) used to sell at higher prices than they do now, but they are coming back.
And also David Gellatly of Chapel Hill, NC, USA who wrote, “Here is an excellent online gallery with ALL of van Gogh’s works 864 paintings, 1038 drawings, 150 watercolors, 10 prints, 133 letter sketches and 874 letters!”
And also Karin Olsson who wrote, “I am currently reading and studying everything I can get my hands on about the Impressionists and their followers. It is incredibly rewarding and so interesting to read of the rejections many of the Impressionists experienced as well as their influence on each other.”
And also Jerry Fuller of New Hampshire, USA who wrote, “It only adds to the tragedy that is Vincent’s life that they (Vincent & Theo) did not allow Johanna into their intimate circle of two. Perhaps if she had handled Vincent’s affairs during his lifetime instead of Theo, who seems to have been inadequate for the task, many things might have turned out differently.”
Enjoy the past comments below for Johanna van Gogh…