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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Brown

42. Who tells your story

We'll let Gauguin get on with it in Pont Aven and shift our attention today to a young woman in Amsterdam who, while Gauguin was making friends and influencing people at the Pension Gloanec, was teaching English at a girls' boarding school. Johanna Bonger was 26 in 1888. She was well-educated, comfortable reading and writing in English, French, German and her native Dutch. Jo had grown up surrounded by conversation and culture. The diary that she kept for much of her young adult life records evenings spent with family and friends and hours spent reading: everyone from Louisa May Alcott to Shakespeare to Balzac. When she was 23, Jo met a friend of her brother's. He fell in love; she didn't. Then she did. In 1889 they married and she moved with him to Paris. The friend was Theo van Gogh.

Jo van Gogh-Bonger is the subject of a recent long article in The New York Times. Dutch historian Hans Luijten spent well over a decade working on the Van Gogh brothers' letters; he's the one behind the amazing online resource Vincent van Gogh: the letters. When he finished the letters, Luijten had an inkling that Vincent's sister-in-law was worth a look. His biography of Jo van Gogh-Bonger came out in Dutch in 2019, and, as he had done with the Letters, Luijten made sure that source material was available online. Jo van Gogh kept a diary between 1880-1887 and again between 1893-1897. That diary, with annotations, is online in both English and Dutch. New York Times Journalist Russell Shorto uses his article to emphasize Jo's role in preserving and creating a market for her brother-in-law's work--and promoting Vincent's story as the prototypical suffering artist.

Jo and Theo married in April, 1889. Vincent died on July 29, 1890; Theo died less than six months later, at the end of January, 1891. At 29, Jo van Gogh-Bonger was a widow with a twelve-month-old son, his uncle Vincent's namesake, and an apartment stuffed with mementos of the van Gogh brothers. Letters, notebooks, drawings, and about 200 paintings. It was all more or less worthless. Shorto summarizes:

Vincent's friend Emile Bernard suggested, after Theo's death, that Jo leave the family's paintings with him in Paris. He would manage selling them, and Jo wouldn't have to worry. But no: she wanted the paintings with her; this was her work to do. "As well as the child," Jo wrote to a friend, "[Theo] has left me another task -- Vincent's work -- getting it seen and appreciated as much as possible." And that's what she did.

There's a French verb, se débrouiller, which doesn't translate directly into English. It means something like doing making the best of a difficult situation, or succeeding where you might easily have failed. Once, in a parking lot on the edge of hill in a French village, I backed into another car. A bus load of school children on a field trip watched, rapt, as I got out of my rental car and surveyed the damage. (Not a lot, but enough.) The owner of the car appeared: a grey-haired Frenchman of a certain age. I explained, I apologized (the school kids watched), we examined the damage together. Then the Frenchman noticed the book I had left on the car seat. Was that my book? Was I reading it? Yes, it was; yes, I was. It was by one of his favorite novelists. My victim softened. We exchanged phone numbers, shook hands, and off he went, recommending other books by the same author. Over lunch, I told our French friends about my adventure: the school kids, the dented fender, the book in common, and the agreement to settle it without troubling his insurance or my car rental company. Our friends looked at each other their rosé and said: elle se débrouille.

Without suggesting that negotiating a dented fender is analogous to making van Gogh into a modern master, I submit that our friends would have said the same of Jo van Gogh-Bonger.

Jo organized exhibition after exhibition of Vincent's works. While her son was small, she made ends meet by running a boardinghouse and translating English, French, and German literature into Dutch. As little Vincent grew up, she began to sell his uncle's paintings strategically, working with dealers she respected and who respected her. She transcribed and published the van Gogh brothers' letters in Dutch, and then began translating them into English.

Van Gogh-Bonger lived in New York City from 1915-1919, spreading the gospel of Vincent to the American market. In 1915, the Modern Gallery on 5th Avenue hosted an exhibition of eight of van Gogh's works; the Times' review of the show quotes from the painter's letters, and proclaims that van Gogh and Rembrandt belong to the "same race in mind and vision." After the exhibition had been up for a few weeks, "a number of sketches and drawings that come from the family of the artist" joined the paintings. Hmm. Who might have lent those? In a cursory search of digitized gallery archives, I cannot find records for the Modern Gallery, or the papers of its owner, Mexican artist, collector, and dealer Marius de Zayas--but it seems reasonable to deduce that Jo had packed some drawings and sketches in her steamer trunks.

Van Gogh-Bonger's journals spanned two periods of her life: her late teens and early twenties (1880-1887) and the early years of her widowhood (1892-1897). The English novelist George Eliot keeps coming up. Jo is reading Eliot to practice her English, then she's returning to Eliot in search of perspective. Eliot's Middlemarch seems to be a favorite. Jo copied a line from the novel into her entry for July 7, 1885: "but something she yearned for by which her life might be filled with action at once rational and ardent." The yearner here is Dorothea Brooke, Eliot's main character, a young woman who longs to make a mark on the world, to do great things. Seven years later, well into her second year on her own, Jo was reading Middlemarch again.

Eliot concludes Middlemarch with a reflection on Dorothea's impact on the world:

...the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

You hear it, right? The echo? Those few outstanding individuals and their unhistoric acts, contributing to the growing good of the world. When Jo re-read Middlemarch in 1892, she was running a bourgeois boarding house outside of Amsterdam. She had hung Vincent's works all over the house; his Potato Eaters had pride of place over the mantle. In her own room, she hung paintings of orchards.

Jo sat under her paintings and wrote in her journal about wanting to create great things and about needing to earn more money. The yearning for a bigger life, a broader life, that George Eliot (who knew something about the tension between doing great things and keeping house) had drawn in Dorothea Brooke, resonated. Jo found a way to keep the flame, to tell the story--nurtured in part by the vision that she found in the books she read at night, after little Vincent had been put to bed.

I started messing around with Flowers and Fruit when the popularity of Lin-Manuel Miranda's musical Hamilton was at its peak. Its lyrics and story were in the cultural air. In the final scene, the cast asks:

I spent months trying to find a thread to pull on that would begin to unravel Louis Roy's story, first as it related to the painting inscribed to him, then as it related to Gauguin, and finally, for its own sake. Louis Roy died at 45. No one told his story: his widow brought up their son, witnessed his 1919 wedding, and walked out of the historical record. I'm still looking for her. She'll come into our story, her story, her husband's and her family's story, later on. Reading about Jo's fostering of Vincent's work and reputation reminded me of the importance of having a keeper of the flame, a teller of the story, for any artist--and for that matter, anyone else.

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