This quote fit with my experiences in Amsterdam:
What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?
-Vincent Van Gogh
Discovering more about Van Gogh, and especially his sister-in-law Johanna, has been a focal point of this trip. As I shared several months ago, Johanna has captured my imagination as a protagonist for a book. She is barely acknowledged as the individual that brought Vincent Van Gogh's work to public acclaim. Married to Vincent's brother, Theo, her role in Van Gogh's fame is intriguing to me.
Without her, one of the world's greatest artists would be unknown.
I first discovered Johanna last fall on a trip to Amsterdam with girlfriends. I learned that Johanna's art dealer husband Theo believed in Vincent's talent. The two of them had planned to open an art business together in order to promote Vincent's work. so Johanna was no stranger to her husband's devotion.
When Vincent died at 37, and his brother Theo, 34, less than a year later from an illness, Johanna was just 28 when she inherited more than 400 works of Vincent's art and 820 letters between Theo and Vincent. With a 1-year-old child, little Vincent, the new widow was urged by her family to return under their roof, but instead she chose to make her own way.
In her grief she wrote: "Besides the care for the child he [Theo] left me yet another task, Vincent's work -- to show it and to let it be appreciated as much as possible. All the treasures that Theo and 'Vincent collected -- to preserve them inviolate for the child -- that also is my task. I am not without an object in life, but I feel lonely and deserted,"
To support herself she opened up her home as a boarding house and then picked up the process Theo had begun as an art dealer: To make Vincent Van Gogh's works known.
I've found out a few more bits and pieces about Johanna on this return trip. I knew that after her days full of care for the house and child, she spent her evenings writing inquiry letters to art dealers, working to promote Vincent's work. Since Theo had saved the correspondence with his brother, Johanna also sorted the letters -- many with sketches and drawings -- transcribing and organizing them into chronological order.
Her diary describes the next several years. Here's one entry about working with art dealers: "I have been busy all the time with the paintings. After an endless correspondence on the part of Issacson and visit by Toorop there are now finally ten paintings with Buffa in Amsterdam, twenty with Oldenzeel in Rotterdam, in December an exhibition in Pulchri, and now on Thursday, the one in "arti,"[exhibition].
It's hard to know what she was feeling during this period except for a few scattered entries. While working on transcribing the letters one diary entry relives the brothers' closeness, "In thought I am living wholly with Theo and Vincent, oh, the infinitely delicate, tender and lovely [quality] of that relation[ship]."
Finally, in 1905, fifteen years after Vincent's death in 1890 -- fifteen years of writing letters, asking for showings, acting as an art representative in a male-dominated art dealer world -- Johanna successfully organizes a show at the acclaimed Stedelikjk Museum in Amsterdam with 472 of Vincent’s works. It is a major recognition.
Then nine years later in 1914 she publishes three volumes of letters between the brothers, including the sketches Vincent had scattered through the correspondence. The thoughtful, intelligent dialogue between the brothers stunningly renunciates the belief that Vincent had been mentally unbalanced. Johanna saves Vincent's reputation too.
So, while this trip has yielded just a little more information, it's definitely made me admire Johanna's persistence. I am still thinking of basing my historical fiction on her story.
Steps I’m taking to explore writing a book
Research: I picked up a little more content from a day trip to see the second largest collection of Van Gogh’s work in the Kroller-Muller Museum in Otterlo, about 50 miles outside of Amsterdam. The extensive collection and sculpture garden were impressive but the best part of the trip was the driver, Jan (pronounced Joong), who peppered our drive with little stories - some true, some not -- I'll share in the future. We also made an inspiring trip to the Van Gogh Museum. We're now in Paris and will check out more Van Gogh paintings in the Musee D'Orsay later this week.
Books I'm reading: Jumping genres I'm reading a highly suspenseful romance right now called, Love's Fiery Prescription by Yvonne Kohano.. The story is fast-moving and keeping me up far too late even as I'm trying to adjust to a European time zone. My body may be in Paris, but when I pick up Yvonne's book I'm in the crossfire of gang members, ex-cons and misunderstanding that are keeping love at bay!
A final thought from Vincent:
One must work and dare if one really wants to live.