The Woman Who Saved Vincent Van Gogh

The Woman Who Saved Vincent Van Gogh

Also, it has to be noted that most significant works from Vincent oeuvre come from the latter part of his life. While in Arles, he was in touch with Paul Gauguin and Emile Bernard. Gauguin, as we all know, would become a part of the legend of Vincent chopping his ear off.

  • Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889.

So Johanna started to get in touch with many artists who loved Vincent and soon things started looking up. Apparently, when Claude Monet, from whom Vincent was greatly influenced, came to see his work, he was astonished that a man who loved flowers and light so much could have been so unhappy. Camille Pissarro supposedly declared in appreciation that Vincent’s flowers look like people.

Irises, 1889. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

  On February 24th, 1892, talking about what has been at times attributed to the first proper exhibition of Vincent’s work  she wrote:

She started to meet art dealers and apart from exhibiting Vincent’s work at her own house, she also started to loan it to other and even found some early buyers. The historical records suggest that the first a buyer of Vincent painting was celebrated French writer Octave Mirbeau, who apparently purchased both the irises and the three sunflowers for mere 600 francs. The paintings from the sunflowers series continued to be in demand. In 1894 to Émile Schuffenecker bought Tokyo version.

Sunflowers, the first version.

In 1903, two years after remarrying  Johan Cohen Gosschalk, a painter, and writer on art, Johanna went to live in Amsterdam and here also her house became a sort of museum of Vincent’s work and started to garner attention. During the summer of 1905, she managed to hire galleries at the Stedelijk (Municipal) Museum at Amsterdam and organized a great exhibition of Vincent’s work which more than two thousand people came to see.Around the same time, Rijksmuseum at Amsterdam declined a loan of any picture by Vincent saying it only would expose two drawings if they were offered as a gift. However, she managed to organize some exhibitions outside the Netherlands and the Folkwang Museum at Hagen in Westphalia became the first international museum to have pictures by Vincent in its collection.  The same year, in 1905, she sold the Munich version of the Sunflower to Hugo von Tschudi, the German art historian and museum curator, notable for being a collector of important Impressionist works.

  • Sunflowers, second version.

A couple of years later, another woman who would go on to become another great Vincent enthusiast became a part of Johanna story. One of the earliest people to recognize Vincent’s genius and after buying her first painting by Vincent, the Edge of the wood in 1908, she eventually went on to collect  91 van Gogh paintings and 185 drawings. Her collection would become the foundation of Kröller-Müller Museum which has the second largest collection of Vincent Van Gogh in the world. In 1910 Vincent’s paintings were shown for the first time in London at the Post-Impressionist Exhibition. People, however, still found them bizarre and funny.

Interiors of Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands.

At the same time, Johanna was fervently promoting Vincent’s picture, she was also getting inspired to organize and translate umpteen letters of Vincent and Theo which would become the integral source for the world to know Vincent’s story. 

Letter from Vincent Van Gogh to Theo Van Gogh 9 April 1885.

She had resolved to publish these letters only after Vincent’s art found recognition and that’s what she did. The first volume of the Dutch edition was published in the spring of 1914 and after she escaped the World War I and went to New York in 1915, she started to translate these letters.   Talking about the letters, she once wrote:

“The letters have taken a large place in my life already, since the beginning of Theo’s illness.  I knew that in them I should find him again. I not only read the letters with my heart but with my whole soul. And so it has remained all the time. I have read them and reread them until I saw the figure of Vincent clearly before me…Sometimes it made me very sad. I remember how last year, on the day of Vincent’s death, I went out late in the evening. The wind blew, it rained, and it was pitch-dark. Everywhere in the houses, I saw light and people gathered around the table. And I felt so forlorn that for the first time I understood what Vincent must have felt in those times when everybody turned away from him when he felt “as if there were no place for him on earth…” I wished that I could make you feel the influence Vincent had on my life. It was he who helped me to accommodate my life in such a way that I can be at peace with myself. Serenity – this was the favorite word of both of them, the something they considered the highest. Serenity – I have found it. Since that winter, when I was alone, I have not been unhappy – “sorrowful yet always rejoicing,” that was one of his expressions, which I have come to understand now.”

At the time of her death on September 2, 1925, she had reached letter 526. A year before she died, she parted, although with great difficulty with one of Vincent’s sunflower painting which she had been very attached to.Writing to Jim Ede, who was one of the curators of National Gallery of Art British Art in London and was trying to convince her to sell the painting.

She may not have been an art enthusiast from the start, but in one of the greatest acts of love and devotion, Johanna Bonger Van Gogh became the greatest curator, protector, and promoter of Vincent’s art.

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