In 1885, a 22-year-old Dutch woman named Johanna Bonger met Theo van Gogh, the younger brother of the artist. He asked her to marry him after only two meetings. In 1888, a year and a half after his proposal, she agreed. It was Paris in the belle epoque: art, theater, intellectuals, the streets of their Pigalle neighborhood raucous with cafes and brothels.
Theo talked incessantly — of their future, and also of things like pigment and color and light, encouraging her to develop a new way of seeing. But one subject dominated. From their first meeting, he regaled Jo with accounts of his brother Vincent’s tortured genius.
Twenty-one months after her marriage, Jo would be left alone. During a stay in the village of Auvers-sur-Oise to the north of Paris, Vincent shot himself. Less than three months later Theo suffered a complete physical collapse during the latter stages of syphilis. He died in January 1891.
Jo was left with approximately 400 paintings and several hundred drawings by her brother-in-law. She was small in stature and riddled with self-doubt, had no background in art or business, and faced an art world that was a thoroughly male preserve. Her full story has recently been uncovered. It is only now we know that without Jo, there may never have been Vincent van Gogh.
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Additional production for The Sunday Read was contributed by Emma Kehlbeck, Parin Behrooz, Carson Leigh Brown, Anna Diamond, Elena Hecht, Desiree Ibekwe, Tanya Perez, Marion Lozano, Corey Schreppel, Margaret Willison and Kate Winslett. Special thanks to Mike Benoist, Sam Dolnick, Laura Kim, Julia Simon, Lisa Tobin, Blake Wilson and Ryan Wegner.