Meet the Woman Who Made Van Gogh Famous

By: Alia Hoyt  | 
Johanna van Gogh-Bonger
Johanna van Gogh-Bonger at the age of 27. Woodbury and Page/Wikimedia/HowStuffWorks

2021 seems to be Vincent van Gogh's year. There are at least five different traveling interactive exhibits in nearly 40 U.S. cities where people flock to literally immerse themselves in his words and works. Some attribute this current van Gogh craze to a scene in the Netflix show "Emily in Paris" which takes place in a "Starry Night" light show. Others think that people are simply looking for new experiences after a year of pandemic isolation.

From famed pieces like "The Starry Night" and "Cafe Terrace at Night" to a litany of self-portraits (some of which include depictions of his famously self-maimed ear), van Gogh's portfolio is overwhelming in its brilliance. It's astonishing to think that he sold only a few paintings in his lifetime, and for small sums of money, yet in 2017 his painting "Laboureur Dans Un Champ" sold for over $81 million.


So, how did this now-iconic painter escape mainstream attention during his lifetime?

Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe
Van Gogh painted "Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe" in 1889 after he had cut off his ear with a razor after an argument with fellow painter and housemate Paul Gauguin. Van Gogh was experiencing mental illness at the time.
The Print Collector via Getty Images

For starters, van Gogh was famously eccentric, which didn't translate well into his "day job" as an art dealer. "We get the impression that Vincent did not excel at sales. He was a failure as an art dealer at Goupil [a fine art dealer]. It is said Vincent was fired from Goupil for not being sufficiently cordial to clients," says Nadine Granoff, director of research for Van Gogh Experts, a van Gogh authentication and appraisal company, in an email interview. This could have burned bridges and turned potential buyers off to his own works in the short term. "He probably seemed a bit eccentric in the world of commerce," she adds.

It's also possible that van Gogh simply didn't live long enough to see all his hard work pay off. He died in 1890 two days after he shot himself in the chest with a revolver at the age of 37 (although some later accounts postulate he was murdered). Thus ended a life plagued with epileptic seizures and debilitating psychotic episodes. As the Van Gogh Museum website notes, at the time of his death, "he was uncertain about the future and felt that he had failed, as a man and as an artist. Even though he was, in fact, starting to get recognition for his work."

Indeed, although he had sold and traded works throughout his career (sometimes for food or art supplies), the final two years of his life saw increased recognition amongst the avant-garde and inclusion in some exhibits in Paris and Brussels, says Hans Luijten, senior researcher at the Van Gogh Museum. Still, this success level was a far cry from the household name that van Gogh is today. So, what happened?


Enter Johanna van Gogh-Bonger

Six months after Vincent died, his beloved brother Theo passed away of complications from syphilis. This was extra tragic because "Theo wanted nothing more than to raise the profile of his brother's work," Luijten says by email.  Fortunately, Vincent still had a formidable champion in his corner ── Theo's wife Johanna.

Interestingly, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger ── better known as Jo ── only became part of the van Gogh clan in 1889, shortly before Vincent's death. Born in 1862, Jo worked as an English teacher at two different girls' schools before her marriage.


Johanna van Gogh-Bonger with son Vincent Willem
Johanna van Gogh-Bonger with son Vincent Willem at the studio of photographer Raoul Saisset, 1890.
Raoul Saisset/Wikimedia

When Theo died, she was left with their son and a sizable art collection. That's when she decided to pursue Theo's wishes. "Jo assumed responsibility for Van Gogh's artistic legacy. From 1891 up to her death, she dedicated herself to raising awareness of Vincent's art and letters," says Luijten, who is also the author of a biography on Jo van Gogh-Bonger. "And of course, she loved his work, too."

Jo raised van Gogh's artistic profile through tireless efforts. She worked extensively to cultivate his name and interest in his style, which was no small feat. "At the time, van Gogh's work was often considered way too modern in the eyes of collectors and art-buyers," Luijten says. To do this, she selectively sold his works, and inspired writers and art critics to cover his paintings. She also lent pieces to prestigious museums and organized countless exhibitions and sales.

"One of Jo's major feats was the organisation of a magisterial exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum [Amsterdam's premier museum for contemporary art] in 1905, where she united no less than 484 of Van Gogh's works," Luijten explains. "A van Gogh exhibition of this magnitude would never again be matched." All told, between 1891 and 1925, Jo sold at least 192 paintings by van Gogh and 55 works on paper, he adds.


Letters to Theo

Another strategic maneuver occurred in 1914, when van Gogh-Bonger published Vincent's letters to Theo. Vincent wrote hundreds of letters to Theo, most of which Theo kept. "This was of vital importance, as following the publication of the letters, appreciation of Vincent as an artist only increased further," says Luijten.

Granoff agrees. "Vincent was an eloquent writer. The letters made Vincent more relatable," she says. She notes that most experts believe Johanna edited out sexual and family secrets, and that only about 40 of Theo's letters to his brother survive. "Vincent typically burned any letters he received after reading them."


Starry Night Over the Rhone
"Starry Night Over the Rhone"was painted by Vincent van Gogh in 1888. It currently hangs in the Musée d'Orsay, Paris. Van Gogh was fascinated by the colors of the night sky and of gas lighting which was new at the time.
Universal History Archive/Getty Images

Upon van Gogh-Bonger's death in 1925 at age 62 from Parkinson's disease, all van Gogh works still in her possession passed to her son, Vincent Willem van Gogh. He continued his mother's life's work and eventually established the Vincent van Gogh Foundation and the Van Gogh Museum, so that his uncle's pieces could be accessible to anyone. Willem van Gogh, Theo and Jo's great-grandson, is currently a board adviser to the Van Gogh Museum.

There's little doubt that despite van Gogh's brilliance, he wouldn't be remembered to the level that he is today without the influence of van Gogh-Bonger who "acted decisively in a world dominated by men," Luijten says. "Jo van Gogh-Bonger is perhaps not a household name, but she was a force to be reckoned with. I am delighted that we are able to tell her life story in such detail now."