Vincent Van Gogh died on July 29, 1890 and his brother Theo died six months later. Theo’s wife Johanna then inherited Theo’s collection of more than 200 of Vincent’ s paintings, over 400 of his drawings, and close to 700 of his letters, most of which were to his brother. She dedicated the rest of her life to bring her brother-in-law’s art to the attention of the world, showing her collection and sorting (Vincent never dated his letters), editing and publishing Vincent’s letters. The letters were published in 1914 and Johanna moved to New York in 1915 and began translating the letters into English. After the war she returned to Amsterdam in 1919 and when she died in 1925 she was on letter # 526.
Johanna’s son, Dr Vincent Willem Van Gogh, inherited his mother’s collection and was instrumental in developing the Van Gogh Foundation. He was present when the Van Gogh Museum featuring his mother’s now expanded collection opened in 1973. He died in 1978.
A strange thing happened when we entered the museum on that rainy Sunday last May. We had purchased tickets at the tourist office near the entrance to Vondel Park a few blocks away. Tickets were also available online. But more than a hundred people were queued outside the building waiting in the rain to buy their tickets. And they booed us when we just bypassed their line and walked right in (there were no people in the line for those who already had tickets).
The Van Gogh paintings are arranged chronologically, allowing one to follow each of his brief learning periods during his ten-year career. Theo’s collection also contained many drawings and paintings by Vincent’s contemporaries, especially Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, Manet and Monet. The one artist Vincent seemed to copy the most was Millet. Vincent also collected many woodcut prints from such famous Japanese artists as Hiroshige and Hakusai. Van Gogh was self taught and you can see the originals by other artists hanging right next to his copies as he struggled for five years to develop his artistic style.
Among the more than 200 paintings displayed in the museum are several self portraits and sunflower studies. The Potato Eaters is also here as well as The Yellow House and Wheatfields with Crows. Other Van Gogh paintings are scattered in museums and private collections throughout the world. Vineyard in Red, the only painting sold during Van Gogh’s lifetime, is in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. Starry Night is in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Shed at the Montmartre with Sunflower is in San Francisco’s De Young Museum. Most of these museums have only one or two Van Goghs. The Louvre in Paris has six. Only in Amsterdam can you see this vast amount of paintings and drawings. The Musee D’Orsay in Paris comes in second place with 24, including Starry Night over the Rhone.
Many people think Van Gogh was a lunatic but a cursory analysis of some of his letters will refute that theory. He was most likely mentally ill for most of his life and a physical wreck at the time of his death, suffering from epilepsy, syphilis and lead poisoning. He may have also been addicted to absinthe. He was obnoxious and argumentative to most of his family and acquaintances but his letters reveal an intelligent and spiritual person who loved and appreciated his brother Theo. Thanks to the Van Gogh Museum, you can discover Van Gogh the man by yourself: all of his letters are available online to read and peruse. And thanks to Johanna for her life-long endeavors. Vincent was a failure in life. Johanna was a success. Lucky us.
Tomorrow: The Anne Frank House.