Johanna (Jo) van Gogh-Bonger was the wife of Theo van Gogh. It is thanks to Jo that we know as much about Vincent van Gogh as we do. Interestingly, Jo met Van Gogh only 3 months before he died, when he stayed with Theo’s family in Paris for 3 days. After the initial meeting she met him only two more times. Though they experienced only a slight personal relationship Jo crusaded to make Van Gogh’s work widely known.
On May 17, 1890 Theo met Vincent at the train station in Paris and brought him home to meet his wife. In her Memoir, Jo wrote this about her first meeting with Vincent,
“I had expected a sick person, but here was a sturdy, broad-shouldered man, with a healthy color, a smile on his face, and a very resolute appearance; of all the self-portraits, the one before the easel is most like him at that period.”
“He stayed with us three days and was lively and cheerful all the time.”
At the beginning of June Dr. Gachet invited Theo and his family to come visit on a Sunday while Vincent would be there as well. Following the visit Vincent sent a letter on June 10, 1890 saying,
“Sunday has left me a very pleasant memory; in this way we feel that we are not so far from one another, and I hope that we shall often see each other again.
I thought that the little one looked well and you two also; you must come back soon.”
Jo made available to Emile Bernard letters that Vincent had sent to his brother, Theo, so they could be published in Mercure de France. By 1893 a number of the letters had been published and the public was becoming aware of Van Gogh’s life and ideas. In Paris, The Hague and Amsterdam the importance of Van Gogh’s works was becoming evident in exhibitions which Jo loaned Vincent’s work for.
Following Theo’s death, Jo determined to move back to Holland in 1891. Her brother, Andre, suggested that she simply be rid of all the Van Gogh works, throwing them out. Thankfully she paid her brother no attention. Instead she sold a number of the paintings and drawings over the years helping to spread Van Gogh’s fame as an artist.
Jo worked hard to edit the correspondence between Vincent and Theo. In 1914 she published Brieven aan zijn broeder, a Dutch three volume addition of Van Gogh’s letters to his brother in which she wrote a 64 page introduction for the 1st volume, offering many details of Van Gogh’s life that had not yet been offered. Her sources were the letters between the brothers, as well as her memories of the talks she and Theo had about Vincent. Van Gogh’s mother, Anna Cornelia Carbentus, died in 1907 at the age of 87 and it is assumed that she was Jo’s source for information about Van Gogh’s earliest years. Jo had spent years arranging the letters in chronological order though many of them offered no date. The order arranged was based on facts and references. In the early years she re-wrote the letters by hand and later years by typewriter. She did all of the edits herself.
In 1915 Jo moved to New York and began translating the Van Gogh letters into English. She died on September 2, 1925 having reached letter 526.
She spent a great amount of effort to exhibit Van Gogh’s works and publish his letters so the world would be aware of Vincent’s talent and Theo’s sacrifice to allow the talent to mature. It is thanks to Johanna van Gogh’s tireless efforts that Vincent van Gogh’s legacy and fame spread.