The woman who made Vincent van Gogh
Jo, meanwhile, continued to believe that letters to Theo – in which Vincent appeared as a romantic figure, a tragic figure – would open his soul to America and beyond. Getting the letters published in English was his last big goal.
It turned out to be a race against time. Her health was failing – she had Parkinson’s disease – and the publisher she had contracted with, Alfred Knopf, wanted to produce only an abridged edition, which she would not agree to. She returned to Europe and lived her final years in a spacious apartment on the majestic Koninginneweg in Amsterdam and in a country house in Laren. Her son, Vincent, and his wife, Josina, moved close to her, and Jo found happiness in the hour she spent each day with her grandchildren. Otherwise, she remained remarkably focused on her life’s mission: shipping canvases to exhibition after exhibition, arguing with the publisher, all while dealing with the pain and other symptoms of her illness.
If anything, her obsession seems to have grown as she neared the end of her life. She had a friendship dispute over a modest sum of money with Paul Cassirer, a German dealer who had worked closely with her to promote van Gogh. When a fictionalized novel about the van Gogh brothers appeared in German in 1921, she found the factual freedoms she needed deeply overwhelming. Requests for paintings for possible exhibitions continued to arrive at a breakneck pace – Paris, Frankfurt, London, Cleveland, Detroit – and she remained closely involved, until she could no longer be. She died in 1925 at the age of 63.
The first English language edition of the letters, by Constable & Company in London and Houghton Mifflin in the United States, appeared two years later, in 1927. It contained an introduction by Jo, in which it explored the myth of the suffering artist. and also underlined the role of her husband: “It was always Theo alone who understood him and supported him.” Seven years later, Irving Stone published his bestselling novel “Lust for Life”, based largely on letters, about the relationship between the van Gogh brothers. It in turn became the source material for the 1956 film starring Kirk Douglas. By then, the myth was ingrained. No less a figure that Pablo Picasso referred to in the life of van Gogh – “essentially lonely and tragic” – as “the archetype of our time”.
There was another tribute that Jo paid to her brother-in-law and her husband, perhaps the most remarkable of all. Late in her life, while translating the letters into English, she arranged for Theo’s remains to be exhumed from the Dutch cemetery where he had been buried and re-buried in Auvers-sur-Oise, next to Vincent. As with the Amsterdam exhibition, she undertook the operation like a general, overseeing every detail, right down to ordering matching tombstones. Hans Luijten told me that he found this a striking manifestation of his determined dedication. “She wanted to have them side by side forever,” Luijten said.
A woman digging up her husband’s remains is such a startling image that it brings us back to the central question in Jo’s life: her motivation. Why, finally, did she become attached to this cause and carried it throughout her life? Certainly, his belief in Vincent’s genius and his desire to honor Theo’s wishes were strong. And Luijten pointed out to me that by promoting van Gogh’s art, she believed that she was also advancing her socialist political beliefs.
But people also act from smaller, simpler motives. Jo’s 21 months with Theo have been the most intense of her life. She experienced Paris, joy, a revolution of color and culture. With Theo’s help, she jumped out of her cautious and conventional world and indulged in passion. Moving today through the museum which houses all the paintings that Jo could not bear to part with, another notion arises: that by devoting herself completely to Vincent van Gogh, by selling him to the world, she brought this moment to life. of his youth. , and allowing the rest of us to feel it.