Van Gogh’s family ties on show.

To initiate a year-long programme of celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the Van Gogh Museum, visitors are invited to experience a deep-dive into the unique relationship between the great artist and his family: Choosing Vincent. Portrait of a Family History.

A sentimental and informative exhibition, it provides insight into the seemingly unconditional, unfaltering support that the family offered Vincent Van Gogh. Despite his brief life, a life painted as a painful path of discovery of the self and of artistic ability, style and sanity, Vincent Van Gogh’s artwork has taken a long road to public recognition. This exhibition is a reminder that, without his family, the museum itself simply would not exist.

Emilie Gordenker, general director Van Gogh Museum, and Lisa Smit, curator, felt it was time to turn the spotlight onto Vincent’s supporters and enablers, to give attention to and show appreciation for their initiative, a praise (it is felt) they richly deserve.

Those who already know Vincent Van Gogh will recognise a life punctuated with setbacks, struggles and, some may say lamentably, only occasional success. The exhibit begins in the early years, in Brabant, with an overview of the Van Gogh family tree, where we see portraits of his mother and father and brothers and sisters, of whom Vincent was the oldest. It moves on to ponder the apparent tumultuous yet steadfast relationship between a younger brother Theo and Vincent. Smit informs that their decision to be ‘brothers for life’ was decided on a long walk to a windmill, known to the curator as this moment was often referred to in numerous letters between the pair. As you walk through Vincent’s own lifeline, exhibited multi-modally with a mixture of fixed art work, video and interactive ‘games’, you reach the point of his ultimate decision: in the summer of 1880, he decides to become an artist full time with the financial support of Theo.

Lisa Smit, curator for this exhibition and also contemporaries at the Van Gogh museum, is also enjoying her anniversary with the collection this year. She stated that they “try to channel the vision of Theo and Vincent, when they exhibit contemporary artists.” In this new exhibition they hope “to make Van Gogh human again”.

We then begin the journey into the history of the museum. The current exhibition will be welcomed by fans with generous affection as it traces the story of the Van Gogh-Bonger family. This is not simply because this exhibition is unusual, nor because of the uplifting memories, but mostly because of the heartfelt optimism.

Theo Van Gogh had succeeded where Vincent had failed: he was established as a successful art buyer and seller, and climbed to the heights of branch manager for Goupil & Cie. This new exhibition takes visitors through the courtship of Theo and Jo Van Gogh-Bonger and their regrettably short marriage and birth of their son, Vincent. 1890 though proves to be the year of devastating double deaths, first of Vincent and then Theo. 

Very few people will know that the museum, and the preservation and collection of Vincent’s work, is the reward for the hard work and determination of Jo, and later their son Vincent ‘the engineer’.  After the deaths, Jo van Gogh-Bonger and Theo had been married for only two years; many of their courting period is evidenced with romantic letters passed between them while she lived in Amsterdam and Theo in Paris. She is left devastated by grief and with the sole responsibility of their son Vincent – Jo described in diaries as: ‘having had the best years of her life, I am now faced with the worst’. As well as inheriting her brother-in-law’s enormous collection of paintings, drawings, prints and letters, she possesses her husband and Vincent’s collection of art by contemporaries that had been compiled over their lifetimes. But what was she to do? Contemplating the choices of each ‘character’ in this story, at each twist and turn, is something the exhibition encourages.

As we bear witness, Jo decides to pursue Theo’s dream of promoting Vincent’s art. For the rest of her life, she determinedly devotes herself to the ghostly hopes and dreams of the deceased; she and her son preserve and raise awareness of Van Gogh’s work, as his brother had done. Burden or a blessing, this proved to be indispensable for the exhibition.

Later, Vincent’s nephew (Theo and Jo’s son Vincent) as a young man went on to become a successful mechanical engineer yet his destiny was to be the driving force for displaying Van Gogh’s masterpieces. Aged 21 he gained control of his half of his inheritance. Vincent ‘the engineer’ had the wisdom to keep the collection and stopped selling in 1920. It was not until after 1945 that he took greater responsibility for the collection and took the initiative to found the Vincent Van Gogh Foundation in 1960, including his three surviving children and the Government Cultural representative, to accommodate the entire estate. Despite challenges and obstacles during the building of the Van Gogh Museum, he pursued this dream, turning his uncle’s misfortune into a miraculous museum. Thus the Vincent Van Gogh museum was opened in 1973 by Queen Juliana.

Further on in the exhibition, the construction of the Van Gogh Museum is detailed. Visitors can view original sketches and reports (also available in a new publication with the same name, to complement the new exhibition), and learn how the placement of the collection came to fruition, right up to the opening in 1973.

Walls adorned with masterpieces are twinned with lesser known gems, including an astonishingly well kept, handmade cabinet built by their great grandfather. This, along with other bespoke pieces, are from the family’s private collection – as the Van Gogh family are still closely involved with the museum, this is a rare treat. One of the most iconic works of art is on display at the entrance of the exhibition: often seen on wallpaper, tote bags and tourist gifts across the city, the famous Van Gogh’s ‘Almond Blossom’ (1890). Vincent painted this masterpiece whilst spending time in an asylum (receiving help for his mental health), as a gift to mark the occasion of the birth of his nephew and namesake Vincent, son of Theo and Jo. Another of the most striking parts of the journey is a large print of a photograph: it shows Jo with her second husband Johan Cohen Gosschalk and young Vincent in their dining room. Surrounding this hangs the original paintings and milk jug and liquor jug, as seen in the photo. The closeness, the personal touch, is almost visceral.

All together, these provide a powerfully visual and immersive family album. The exhibition tells a story that emphasizes a special bond between the brothers, Vincent and Theo. It sheds light on the role that Jo (Theo’s wife) and their son Vincent had and it is this, in particular, that helped shape the course of history.

It really is a unique exhibition; like Vincent Van Gogh himself, it is erudite without flaunting it. I like to think how many visitors to this new exhibition are going to admire the courage of this curatorship, revel in its storytelling, its sentimentality and take delight in its generosity of spirit. Tinged with tragedy, this exhibition proves that Van Gogh’s oeuvre continues to surprise and, subsequently, is acknowledged by many to be a world-famous museum collection.  Rose Fawbert Mills   8th February 2023

Choosing Vincent. Portrait of a Family History, from: 10 February to 10 April 2023, at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.