Johanna van Gogh


Dear Artist,

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.

Johanna van Gogh-Bonger (1862-1925)

Johanna van Gogh-Bonger (1862-1925)

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)

Self-portrait, 1887 Oil on artist's board, mounted on cradled panel 41 × 32.5 cm (16 1/8 × 12 13/16 in.) by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) Vincent made over 35 self-portraits within the 10 years he was actively painting.

Self-portrait, 1887
Oil on artist’s board, mounted on cradled panel
41 × 32.5 cm (16 1/8 × 12 13/16 in.)
by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)
Vincent made over 35 self-portraits within the 10 years he was actively painting.

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.”

Best regards,


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.

Vincent and Theo van Gogh's gravesite at the cemetery of Auvers-sur-Oise.

Vincent and Theo van Gogh’s gravesite at the cemetery of Auvers-sur-Oise.

This letter was originally published as “Johanna van Gogh” on May 16, 2008.

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“What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?” (Vincent van Gogh)



  1. I missed reading this when it originally came out in 2008. It is so wonderful to read this now three days before we celebrate the life of Mr. Robert Genn. For it will be eight years since he departed.

    Mr. Robert Genn was an early supporter of my pledge to humanity by allowing many of my insights, writings, and quotes on his website. I was always very moved by this as I had the utmost respect for his writings and the passion that he lived by.

    Johanna Van Gogh has been someone that I have been advocating for for decades. I don’t think most people know her story. . I wish there would be films & documentaries made on her.

    I’m so glad that Mr. Genn wrote an article on her and it is being re-released today.

    R.I.P. (Rest In Painting) Robert Genn

    Miles Patrick Yohnke

  2. Johanna was the ultimate Art Heroine! But lordy, the billion$ made off the life of a man who truly suffered is just the most cruel irony.

  3. I didn’t read this when Robert originally posted the email. Over these past years I have represented the private sale of several small van Gogh works including a drawing. I can just imagine how Vincent would be of two minds. On one side he might be somewhat angered at the enormous prices his works command as he lived simply and essentially hand to mouth. However, the other side of his and Theo’s mind would be greatly satisfied as the world of art has such reverence for the artistry created. Vincent in particular would likely feel vindicated that his theories were proven correct over time.

  4. I didn’t read this when Robert originally posted the email. Over these past years I have represented the private sale of several small van Gogh works including a drawing. I can just imagine how Vincent would be of two minds. On one side he might be somewhat angered at the enormous prices his works command as he lived simply and essentially hand to mouth. However, the other side of his and Theo’s mind would be greatly satisfied as the world of art has such reverence for the artistry created. Vincent in particular would likely feel vindicated that his theories were proven correct over time.

    • jeanne ruzzin on

      Should have written that she helped VINCENT’s work take off, but no edit feature in this software.

  5. I recently visited a beautifully curated exhibition at the Santa Barbara Art Museum in California – “Through Vincent’s Eyes, Van Gogh and His Sources”. I followed two separate docents to get the different perspectives on Van Gogh’s life and works. This show went so much beyond the cliches, showing how much humanity Vincent experienced in his short life.
    How tempting it is to impose our modern sensibilities on the past, and use a brutal magnifying glass to pick apart and analyze a troubled soul who left such pain and beauty as a gift for the world!

  6. Muriel Dowle on

    Vincent is my favourite painter. One of my greatest joys was spending a day in Auvers sur Oise, the room where he lived, the cornfield, the hotel de ville, dr Gadets, the graves of him and his brother. It is a beautiful peaceful village an easy day trip from Paris.

  7. News Bulletin!! The Smithsonian forensics department sought and gained the permission to exhume Van Gogh’s body. They determined that he could not have held the gun and shot himself. The forensically discovered path of the bullet made this impossible. Permission was granted because some 20 +years ago a nonagenarian farmer confessed on his deathbed to having shot VG by accident when the farmer was 10 years old. VG famously walked to Gachet’s office after being wounded and announced: “i did this”. In that way he charitably exonerated the young boy who was holding the gun when it went off unexpectedly. VG died 3 days later. (Check with Smithsonian Magazine for date of the article.)

    • Jo Williams on

      I’m surprised no one has mentioned the outstanding film, VINCENT, produced several years ago, made by hand-painted cells by hundreds of artists from around the world who gathered together to create this stop-action film–the ultimate love letter to Van Gogh, I think. To add some more details of the gun incident, the boy who shot him was playing around with a gun another boy and he got from the owner of the restaurant where Van Gogh lived upstairs. Despite knowing that the gun was faulty and could go off anytime, these two teenagers were playing with it, trying to emulate the current rage in Paris, the touring Wild West Show with Annie Oakley and others. When Van Gogh would paint at the local lake, these boys would tell their girlfriends to flirt with him, and then let him down that it was all a big joke. He knew these boys were spoiled rich kids that summered every year there before returning home to Paris. I suspect he tolerated their company at times because he was lonely. As he was returning home by way of the backyard these boys were in, he may even have entered the yard to get them to stop playing with this faulty gun, only to get accidentally shot instead. I’m grateful now that the truth is out that Van Gogh did not commit suicide, and I hope that more people learn about it and stop circulating this lie–Vincent deserves better than this!!

      • Thanks Jo, I also enjoyed that movie, like a moving oil painting.
        I also remember an episode of Doctor Who which included a scene where Van Gogh gets to see how is art is so celebrated in the future. It was surprisingly moving.

        • Jo Williams on

          Thanks Steve, I just happened to catch that episode of Doctor Who as well, and sat there riveted to the TV. At the end when Van Gogh is observing people’s positive reactions to his art on the gallery walls, I could barely see the TV screen for all the tears I was crying…I so wanted that to have actually happened.

    • Melinda Carwile on

      Oh my !! That is an amazing story! It helps in a way, to accept his death, and the loss of yet more masterpieces as a tragic accident, and not that he was so very desperate that he ended it all,himself. I have to take this In… Thankyou so much for sharing this.
      I was so fortunate to see his works in Amsterdam in the 80s, at the museum dedicated to him.
      There is nothing like experiencing him without any distractions of another artists work.

  8. Thank you so much for sharing this story!
    Vincent was my very first favourite artist when I was a young teenager.
    I thoroughly but sadly enjoyed reading “Dear Theo” and wondered how he managed to write numerous pages about his father not giving Theo his old overcoat.
    I was also fortunate to see the largest collection of Van Gogh’s work on the 100th anniversary of his death in 1991 in Amsterdam.

  9. I agree without Johanna, wed not not of either of those guys.
    Two questions; When does HER movie come out

    2. Why isn’t she next to the other in that graveyard

  10. How fascinating to read about Johanna Van Gogh. I want to learn more and know more about her. I absolutely have to chirp in here, though, about one of Vincent’s most famous paintings: Starry Night. I wonder how many artists have copied, reproduced, and/or plagiarized this piece, and on and on. I am one such person. A couple of years ago I decided to challenge myself by attempting to copy this work. I reversed the image for a specific reason; so that I could put in our local 3 Sisters Mountains where Vincent had painted his mountains. It was such fun. I sold the painting and have had dozens of art cards made of this image for the local tourist market. Thank-you dear Vincent.

  11. Charles R Eisener on

    Sounds like I am in the minority. I never appreciated Van Gogh’s paintings, but certainly was aware of his life and status as an artist. Fortunately, that changed when I visited the Van Gogh:Up Close exhibition in the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2012. What a revelation that was!!
    Having previously seen only printed reproductions, standing a few feet in front of these pieces and being overwhelmed by their vibrant color and bold brushwork was the experience of a lifetime.
    This past weekend I went to an immersive “Van Gough” presentation in Raleigh NC. While there were no pre-conceived expectations, there were disappointments. Most of the printed posters featuring specific paintings were low quality and low-resolution images that simply did not capture any of the color saturation or brushwork of the originals – the prints in the gift shop were of higher quality. As an entertainment venue it was OK, but for any sincere follower of Van Gough it was not worthy of note in my opinion.
    Theo was perhaps the unsung hero; without his continual and consistent financial support and constant encouragement, who knows what may have become of his brother Vincent? The supreme irony is that his own life was endured in almost abject poverty, while today his paintings are selling for up to 40 – 80 million dollars each. Without the dedication and efforts of Johanna, many of Vincent’s works could have simply been discarded and lost forever. It truly was a family effort to recognize, support, and promote these masterworks.

  12. Thank you for re-posting this. It reminded me of a children’s art class I used to run. I had read them a nice picture book about Van Gogh, and then they could paint what they liked.
    One 1st grade child did a large Starry Night picture, but there was something in the middle of it. I asked him to tell me about it, and he said “it’s The Starry Night, with Death Star!”
    Yes! Thank you for that, dear boy, that was creativity at its best.

  13. Jo Williams on

    Years ago I had the good fortune to visit Arles, and many of the locations associated with Van Gogh’s life there. I even got to eat dinner at the site of his famous painting, The Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum, Arles,1888. My studio is done in blue and yellow, the colors often found in his paintings, and numerous memorials with prints of his art as well as artificial sunflowers to celebrate his life. Interestingly, I realized that this also sounds like a memorial for Ukraine as well…and appropriate.

  14. I too was in awe of the film VINCENT a few years ago, but after reading about Johanna and her empathic conservation of, and attention to, the artworks and brothers’ correspondence, I wonder: where’s the film about HER? And where is Johanna buried? Oh, if only we could rewrite history, by firmly reinserting such women into the male-dominated matrix…
    Oh, and while I love reading your articles for the fascinating content, I don’t usually expect humour. But oh how I laughed while visualizing the brothers rotisserating in their graves ;)

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