The general outlines of Vincent van Gogh’s (1853–1890) life—the early difficulties in Holland and Paris, the revelatory impact of the move to Provence, the attacks of madness and despair that led to his suicide—are almost as familiar as his paintings. Yet neither the paintings nor Van Gogh’s story might have survived at all had it not been for his sister-in-law, the teacher, translator, and socialist Jo van Gogh-Bonger.
Jo married the painter’s brother, Theo (1857–1891), in 1889, and over the next two years lived through the deaths of both Vincent and her new husband. Left with an infant son, she inherited little save a cache of several hundred paintings and an enormous archive of letters. Advised to consign these materials to an attic, she instead dedicated her life to making them known. Over the next three decades she tirelessly promoted Vincent’s art, organizing major exhibitions and compiling and editing the correspondence, the first edition of which included, as a preface, her account of Van Gogh’s life. This short biography, written from a vantage point of familial intimacy, affords a revealing and, at times, heartbreaking testimony to the painter’s perilous life.
An introduction by the art critic and scholar Martin Gayford provides an insightful discussion of the author’s relationship with the Van Goghs, while abundant color illustrations throughout the book trace the development of the painter’s signature style.
Jo van Gogh-Bonger (1862–1925) compiled and edited the first edition of Vincent van Gogh’s letters. Martin Gayford studied philosophy at Cambridge and art history at the Courtauld Institute of London University. He has written prolifically about art and jazz, and he is currently art critic for the Spectator. His book about Van Gogh in Arles, The Yellow House, was published in 2005.