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. 

Au revoir!



Stop acting so small. You are the universe in ecstatic motion.
-Jalaluddin Rumi

Each of us has a purpose - an ecstatic one! When I came across this quote it immediately resonated with a story I've been thinking about writing. Let me share its discovery with you.

Last October three girlfriends and I took off for a quick 5-day trip to Amsterdam. It's become something of a tradition for us -- every few years we find a good flight/hotel travel bargain, push aside family/work ties and take off. Amsterdam had risen to the top of our choices -- a direct flight from New York, none of us had ever been, good shopping and Belgian chocolate -- perfect. 

It was at the start of our second day that I stumbled across the story.

A 15-minute walk from our hotel was the green expanse of Museumplein (Museum Quarter), a beautiful park fringed by a number of Amsterdam's major museums. One is the Van GoghMuseum, which owns the largest collection of Van Gogh paintings and drawings in the world. When Vincent Van Gogh died in 1890, he'd not yet been discovered as a major artist. Literature describes how his brother Theo, an art dealer, safeguarded 200 of Van Gogh's paintings, 500 drawings and an 850-letter correspondence between he and Vincent. It's this treasure trove the Van Gogh Museum dips into and displays.

The Van Gogh Museum has a fantastic layout. If you follow its plan, the route starts on the ground floor and moves up floor by floor. The course takes visitors through Vincent's life story. Beginning with landscapes of farm scenes he likely experienced as a boy, the exhibit traces Vincent's life as a teacher and theologian, of love and heartbreak, then of art and mental instability. Display by display he comes to life in the museum. Gradually, his original creativity and emotion break through and I imagine glimpses of the man through his priceless paintings. Here is one of the world's greatest artists.

It was after about three hours that I saw it. At the very end of the exhibit, on the top of the third floor was a panel that listed Van Gogh's family members. I remember I'd just glanced at my watch and knew there was only a few minutes remaining before the time my girlfriends and I were to reunite. Hurriedly, I scanned the family tree. Next to Theo was a reference to his wife, Johanna, Vincent's sister-in-law, and then an astounding, almost casual reference.

Here is where I found my story.

Theo did not bring Vincent's work to public attention. Grieving over his brother's suicide, Theo became ill and died about a year after Vincent. It was Johanna -- married just 18 months and with a new baby -- who inherited all of Vincent's work. Many of his paintings were still wet, heavy with their multiple coats of oil paint. When Theo died Johanna's family implored her to return home where she and the baby could be cared for. Instead she decided to move to Bussum, a quiet town, and to pick up her husband's trade as an art dealer. Taking in boarders and housekeeping to earn a living, at night Johnanna wrote letters to galleries and collectors promoting Vincent's work. It was her tenacity, not Theo's, that ultimately gave the world Vincent Van Gogh's art and letters.

Standing in front of that panel, I marveled. Without Johanna, Van Gogh's work would likely have been undiscovered, lost.

Since that trip I've gradually been reading the letters between Theo and Vincent and seen excerpts from Johanna's diary. Her first entry begins, "Tout n'est que reve!" (Everything is but a dream!) She writes, "Theo taught me much about art, no let me rather say - he has taught me much about life... Besides the care for the child he left me yet another task, Vincent's work -- to show it and to let is be appreciated as much as possible." So began the years of her laboring to make Van Gogh's work known.

(I have the best sanctimonious art-critic quote from Johanna's time, "Mrs. Van Gogh is a charming little woman but it irritates me when someone gushes fanatically on a subject she knows nothing about...It's a schoolgirlish twaddle, nothing more." Ha! I wonder if he lived long enough to know he was wrong?

I have much more research to do but this story tugs at me. I have a mission statement I've been thinking about for my writing: "To share stories of perseverance through challenges, and how this connects us to what matters and each other." Johanna seems to fit.   

What do you think?

Update on exploring steps to write a book:
Writing 30 minutes/day: Today is Day 57.

Research similar authors:  Airline travel this past week enabled me to finish Sue Monk Kidd's Secret Life of Bees, which I loved. Now I can watch the movie! I'd read Kidd's The Invention of Wings, and found that both of these books have the theme of tenacity in common. Kidd gives her protagonists time to work through the change their characters need to make -- years of time -- and doesn't rush the hard work of their need to let go of insecurity. One last point - as part of my research I follow the authors I'm reading on Twitter. About a week ago Sue Monk Kidd tweeted, "The power of a typo!" She'd been invited to speak at an event calling her the author of The Secret Life of Beer. Ha!

Mastermind writing course: Just finished Week 4 of this 12-week virtual class. So far the biggest transformation the course has given me is feeling as though I've moved from a holding pattern into forward motion with my writing. I'm grateful. 

It seems fitting to end with a quotes from Vincent, "What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything? "