Van Gogh family role hailed in museum's 50th birthday show


Emilie Gordenker, director of the Van Gogh Museum, removes the frame of a reproduction of the painting 'Self-Portrait With Grey Felt Hat' by Vincent Van Gogh as part of an interactive section of the exhibition 'Choosing Vincent' at Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Photo: AFP

He's one of the most famous artists in history. But Vincent van Gogh could have faded into obscurity were it not for his family - and the vision of one woman.

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam launched its 50th anniversary celebrations on Wednesday with a new exhibit hailing their often under-appreciated role.

Choosing Vincent which opens on Friday until April 10, not only features several of the Dutch master's famous paintings, but also rarely-seen objects including his birth certificate and the only-known photograph of him in existence.

It pays homage to the tireless work of Vincent's beloved brother Theo and, in particular, Theo's widow Jo Van Gogh-Bonger, who dedicated her life to making sure the world saw the genius of Vincent's works.

"Jo contributed greatly to the fame of Vincent," said curator Lisa Smit.

Van Gogh sold only a handful of paintings during his lifetime, and at the time of his death in 1890 after a self-inflicted gunshot wound was often wracked with self-doubt about his talent.

Theo died six months after Vincent, in 1891, leaving Jo Van Gogh-Bonger with a large collection of paintings by a virtually unknown artist.

'All-important life decision'

"At this point in time, Jo is a young woman of 28 and she has a little boy who hasn't even turned one yet," said Smit.

"So what is she going to do with this collection? Is she going to keep it, is she going sell it? She really has to make that all-important life decision."

The answer to that question created the Van Gogh we know now - whose paintings including Sunflowers and Irises are among the most expensive ever sold.

"A few months after Theo's death she writes in her diary that she wants to make it her mission to follow Theo's dream to find recognition for her brother in law, which she does for the rest of her life," said Smit.

She not only preserved the paintings but also looked after the correspondence between her husband and her brother in law, which would later be published as Dear Theo.

Theo and Jo's son, named Vincent after his artist uncle, continued keeping the collection intact and was instrumental in handing it over in its entirety to the Vincent van Gogh Foundation in 1962.

Part of the deal was the building of a museum to house Van Gogh's works including other famous paintings like Wheatfield With Crows and self-portraits.

'Tells a story'

Choosing Vincent prominently features the iconic work Almond Blossom - which Vincent painted as a gift to his namesake nephew in 1890 a few months before his death.

The Japanese-influenced work was one of the hundreds of Van Gogh's paintings handed over to the Foundation in 1962.

In 1973 the museum opened its doors to the public as the Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh.

The museum changed its name to the Van Gogh Museum in 1994 and today houses more than 200 paintings, 500 drawings and around 800 letters in the largest collection globally by the painter.

"This is an exhibition that tells a story," said Van Gogh Museum Director Emilie Gordenker.

"A story about Vincent, but also his family and how close they were and what they meant to each other." - AFP

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