There is evidence that Theo van Gogh was attracted to Johanna from as early as 1886, but the two didn’t marry until 1889. Jo Bonger was the sister of Theo’s friend Andre Bonger. In April of 1887, Theo wrote to his sister Lies about his feelings concerning Jo.
“I am planning at one time or another to ask for Jo Bonger’s hand. I surely don’t know her enough to be able to tell you much about her. As you know, I have only seen her a few times, but the things I know about her appeal to me….
I think I could talk with her about anything and I believe that if she wanted it, she could mean very much to me.”
Theo went to Amsterdam to visit Jo and declare his affections. The feelings were not mutual, and Jo did not immediately return the sentiment. Instead, she was annoyed that a man she hardly knew wanted to marry her. However, Theo didn’t give up hope, and the following year they became engaged.
Finally on December 21, 1888, Theo wrote to his mother with life changing news,
“…I loved her too much, and now, after we had seen much of each other the last few days, she has told me that she loves me too and that she wants to have me just as I am. In a way I am afraid that she is mistaken about me and that I will disappoint her, but oh! I am so happy, and I’ll gladly try to understand her and make her happy…”
Theo also wrote to his sister Lies to spread the good news,
“You are one of the first whom I want to tell a very great piece of news which will cause a great change in my life and which makes me incredibly happy. The question is that I am engaged to Jo Bonger.”
He closed his letter to Lies explaining that Jo was planning to go to Amsterdam soon and that he also planned to go at the beginning of January to make the engagement public. The day he wrote to Lies, Theo received a telegram from Paul Gauguin requesting him to come to Arles immediately. When Theo arrived, he discovered that Vincent had cut off a piece of his ear in a violent episode.
Of his brother’s engagement Van Gogh wrote saying,
“Meantime the great thing is that your marriage should not be delayed. By getting married you will set Mother’s mind at rest and make her happy, and it is after all almost a necessity in view of your position in society and in commerce. Will it be appreciated by the society to which you belong, perhaps not, any more than the artists ever suspect that I have sometimes worked and suffered for the community…So from me, your brother, you will not want completely ordinary congratulations and assurances that you are about to be transported straight into paradise. And with your wife you will not be lonely any more; which I could wish for our sister as well.
That, after your own marriage, is what I should set my heart on more than anything.
When you are married, perhaps there will be other marriages in the family, and in any case you will see your way clear and the house will not be empty any more.”
On April 18, 1889, Theo van Gogh married Johanna Gezina Bonger in the Amsterdam town hall. According to a letter from Lies, to Theo, the fact that the two did not wed in a church caused a great deal of worry and frustration from the Van Gogh parents. The groom, 31, and the bride 26, left Amsterdam for Paris following the wedding. It was on a side-street off the rue Pigalle that they rented an apartment.
On April 21, 1889 Van Gogh wrote to Theo saying,
“I wish you and your wife a great deal of happiness.”
It is apparent from a letter to Vincent van Gogh from Theo that Jo had hopes of a good relationship with her brother-in-law, Vincent. Theo wrote on March 16, 1889 saying,
“She (Jo) had the fond idea that, by reason of her wanting to live my life as much as possible, you might have been a brother to her, as you have always been to me. We hope from the bottom of our hearts that you will be able to recover your health completely, and that you will be able to resume your work within a short time.”
In January of 1891 Theo van Gogh died leaving behind his widow Jo and their infant son, Vincent Willem van Gogh. Jo inherited some 200 paintings of Vincent’s which at the time were of little to no value. However, she worked tirelessly to promote Vincent’s work and ensure Van Gogh’s legacy.