Giving Credit Where Credit is Due: Meet Jo van Gogh!

The way  VAN GOGH – The Immersive Experience (which is currently touring across the United States) uses technology to present the extraordinary work of 19th Century painter Vincent van Gogh is truly awe-inspiring. That said, however, I am deeply troubled by how little acknowledgement is given to the work of the woman who labored tirelessly to ensure that history would remember him.

Today, we owe much of our knowledge of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings – as well as his brief but historically triumphant life – to Jo van Gogh-Bonger (the wife of Vincent’s beloved brother Theo). Indeed, had Jo van Gogh not saved Vincent’s paintings after Theo’s untimely death (barely one year after Vincent’s death), who knows what we would even be immersing ourselves in all these decades later?

Jo van Gogh-Bonger’s name appears once in VAN GOGH – The Immersive Experience. It’s in the last paragraph of a panel about Vincent’s sisters (sisters who were largely uninterested in his work during his life and remained so after his death). And although there are photos of Vincent’s sisters, there is no photo of Jo, not even the relatively famous one of Jo holding her son Vincent Willem van Gogh (Vincent’s nephew and namesake).

The panel notes:

“If van Gogh’s works have passed to posterity, the credit goes largely to his sister-in-law, Jo van Gogh-Bonger, widow of Theo van Gogh. It was she who became the most fervent promoter of his work, published the first edition of the correspondence, and donated most of her collection to the Amsterdam museum.” 

Clearly, Vincent’s works have passed to posterity, or this exhibit would not exist. In an exhibit celebrating Vincent’s work, life, and mindset, it feels unthinkable that the woman responsible for ensuring that we know him and his paintings today would be relegated to one tiny paragraph. Therefore, on behalf of FF2 Media, I am proud to set the record straight by introducing you to an extremely talented woman writer/editor of enormous accomplishment in her own right.

Johanna Bonger was born in Amsterdam on October 4, 1862. Her middle-class family was frugal, but spent what it could on concerts and trips to the theatre. As Jo grew up, it became clear that she was gifted in music and languages. Her older brother Andries was close friends with Theo van Gogh, who, at the time, was an important art dealer from the Netherlands living in Paris. As soon as they met, Theo was immediately smitten. Jo, on the other hand, was starting a career in education, so she was in no rush. But after a first failed proposal, she agreed and the pair got married in April 1889. They then lived in happily wedded bliss for the few short years granted to them.

Jo went above and beyond to support not only Theo, but also his tempestuous brother Vincent, who, though older than Theo, was emotionally and financially dependent on his younger brother. She insisted that Vincent be the godfather to their child, Vincent Willem, who was born in January 1890. But the elder Vincent was already suffering from severe mental health issues by this point, and he passed away – likely from suicide – in July 1890. In truth, Vincent and Jo had only met face-to-face a few times, but they had exchanged many letters.

Theo immediately set to work trying to preserve Vincent’s legacy, and win him the fame he had not experienced in life. But sadly, Theo too had already begun to have mental and physical health issues of his own. He was placed in a mental institution and died of late-stage neurosyphilis in January 1891. Jo, not yet 30 years old, was now a widow, left to struggle on alone with a young baby, hundreds of Vincent’s paintings, and a huge pile of correspondence.

The letters that flew back and forth between the brothers – letters that are directly responsible for so much of what we know about this now-beloved painter – are mentioned multiple times throughout VAN GOGH – The Immersive Experience‘s first half. Quotations from the letters appear on the information panels, and the importance of Theo’s role in Vincent’s life is (rightfully) stressed. Little credit, unfortunately, is given to Jo for her years of work transcribing these hand-written letters, and then assembling and preparing the first letter collection for publication.

But, little credit is given to Jo for her years of work transcribing and assembling the first letter collection. 

After Theo’s death, Jo moved back to the Netherlands and opened a boarding house to support herself and young Vincent Willem. Despite the advice of those close to her, Jo did her best to keep Vincent’s collection of paintings together, only selling them when financially necessary, or when she believed that the sale would help achieve her goal of gaining Vincent recognition for his genius. Back in the Netherlands, Jo began what would become her life’s work: networking with artists and art dealers, organizing exhibits of her brother-in-law’s work, and editing the letters the two brothers had left behind.

Theo and Vincent exchanged hundreds of letters during their lifetimes. Theo saved all of Vincent’s letters, and many of the ones written by Theo survived as well. Jo understood that getting to know Vincent personally through his words might entice the public to be more interested in his paintings. And in those early years after her husband’s death, Jo took solace in getting to know the brother to whom Theo had dedicated his life through his words.

The letters were first published in 1914, alongside a short memoir Jo wrote about Vincent based on her own knowledge and questions she had asked his remaining family members. These books have been in publication ever since, and continue to be crucial documents in understanding both Vincent and his body of work.

With these letters’ importance, it seems bizarre that more credit is not given to the woman who preserved and prepared them for the public.

Aside from the exhibit’s failure to recognize Jo’s huge contributions to our knowledge of Vincent van Gogh, it’s a very good presentation of his work. While it’s somewhat strange to learn about an artist without any of his actual paintings on view, the creative ways the paintings are presented in some ways mirror the creativity of the Impressionist movement itself.

Unfortunately, VAN GOGH – The Immersive Experience follows in the tradition of much Van Gogh scholarship that ignores Jo’s role in his life and legacy, at best relegating her to the sidelines. It’s imperative that we recognize Jo’s extraordinary work and dedication to her brother-in-law, particularly if we want to understand how an artist’s role in posterity is created.

© Nicole Ackman (1/3/23) – Special for FF2 Media®


Find out if the VAN GOGH – The Immersive Experience is coming to a location near you.

Read a summary of Jo van Gogh-Bonger’s life on Wikipedia.

Click here to browse through Vincent van Gogh’s letters.

Click here to read Jo van Gogh-Bonger’s diaries.

Click here to learn more about the recently release of Alles voor Vincent by Hans Luijten.

Jo van Gogh-Bonger: The Woman Who Made Vincent FamousAlles voor Vincent translated from the Dutch by Lynne Richards – is now available in English! 535 pages long with extensive notes and fabulous illustrations, this book is a perfect gift for art lovers everywhere!


Photos taken by Nicole Ackman at VAN GOGH – The Immersive Experience.

Tags: Amsterdam, Jo van Gogh-Bonger, Letters, Nicole Ackman, Painting, Theo van Gogh, VAN GOGH – The Immersive Experience, Vincent van Gogh

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Nicole Ackman is an FF2 Media Associate based in North Carolina, after living in London and New York. She graduated from Elon University with a Bachelors degree in History and Strategic Communication and from City University of London with a Masters degree in Culture, Policy, and Management. She is a theatre and film critic and is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association. Her taste in film tends towards period dramas, movie musicals, and anything starring Saoirse Ronan. In addition to film, she is passionate about history, theatre, Disney parks, and classic novels by female writers.
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