EPISODE ONE ~ Chapter 3
The Family Van Gogh
“‘When he came back to them of his own will, they received him with so much love and tried
everything in their power to make him comfortable…’ [His father wrote] ‘We approved of his staying
here for some time to make studies. He wanted the mangling room fitted up for him…We had a nice
stove put in; as the room had a stone floor we had it covered with boards and made it as comfortable
as possible; we put in a bed on a wooden stand, so that it might not be too damp…I proposed having
a large window made in it but he did not want that. In short, we undertake this experiment with real
confidence, and we intend to leave him perfectly free in his peculiarities of dress, etc.’”
Throughout his life, Vincent was provided for by a number of people, among them his father, brother, uncles, friends, doctors, and Protestant clergymen. Their singular concern for him, clearly evident in Johanna’s writings, does not concur with suggestions by earlier Van Gogh scholars many of whom have propagated the notion that Vincent’s upbringing was abnormal, and was a major cause of his instability. Van Gogh biographer, M.E. Traulbaut, even proposed a Freudian hypothesis that Vincent’s mother had rejected him in favor of her first-born son (also named Vincent) who had been still-born. Johanna attests to just the opposite—that in losing the first Vincent, it was imperative for the family to cherish and nurture the second.
Vincent van Gogh was born into an important Dutch family whose members, over the centuries, had been involved in a variety of vocations: theology, government, the military, sculpture, painting, crafts, and book-binding. Three at least were astute and adept in the business of selling art.
Vincent’s grandparents had eleven children—two daughters and nine sons. Both daughters married military officers of high rank in the Dutch Armed forces, while six of the sons held notable administrative and business positions in what we now call The Netherlands. Vincent’s Uncle Johannes, a handsome and powerful man, was Vice-Admiral and Commandant of the Dutch Navy—its second-highest ranking officer.
Three other sons became art dealers. One in particular was to have a powerful impact on Vincent and Theo in their decisions to pursue careers in art. Also named Vincent, but known as Uncle Cent, he was well-read, highly successful, and very influential. According to Johanna, he had opened a gallery in Den Haag (The Hague) that enjoyed prestige throughout Europe. She described Uncle Cent as a “gifted, witty, and intelligent man, and held great authority in the world of art at that time.” Johanna told how Goupil & Cie., the renowned international art dealers and print publishers in Paris, offered him a partnership, and “achieved its highest renown only after Vincent (the uncle) joined it.” There was, therefore, a well established set of vocational choices within the Van Gogh family.
Johanna, writing in her memoirs, provided a lucid understanding of the family Van Gogh:
“The family name, Van Gogh, is probably derived from the small town Gogh on the German frontier, but in the sixteenth century the Van Goghs were already established in Holland. According to the Annales Genealogiques by Arnold Buchelius, a Jacob Van Gogh lived at that time in Utrecht, “in the Owl behind the Town Hall.” Jan, Jacob’s son, who lived “in the Bible under the flax market,” sold wine and books and was Captain of the Civil Guard. Their coat of arms was a bar with three roses, and it is still the Van Gogh family crest.
“In the seventeenth century we find many Van Goghs occupying high offices of state in Holland. Johannes Van Gogh, magistrate of Zutphen, was appointed High Treasurer of the Union in 1628; Michel Van Gogh—originally Consul General in Brazil and treasurer of Zeeland—was a member of the Embassy that welcomed King Charles II of England on his ascent to the throne in 1660. In about the same period Cornelius Van Gogh was a Remonstrant clergyman at Boskoop;…
“…David Van Gogh, who settled in The Hague, was a gold-wire drawer. His eldest son, Jan, followed the same trade, and married Maria Stalvius; both belonged to the Walloon Protestant Church. David’s second son, Vincent (1729-1802), was a sculptor by profession, and was said to have been in Paris in his youth: in 1749 he was one of the Cent Suisses. With him the practice of art seems to have come into the family . . . .
“…Johannes was at first a gold-wire drawer like his father, but he later became a Bible teacher and a clerk in the Cloister Church at The Hague. He married Johanna van der Vin of Mallines, and their son Vincent (1789-1874) was enabled, by the legacy of his great-uncle Vincent, to study theology at the University of Leiden. This Vincent, the grandfather of the painter, was a man of great intellect, with an extraordinarily strong sense of duty. At the Latin school he distinguished himself and won all kinds of prizes and testimonials…”
Johanna, who had named her own child Vincent Willem Van Gogh after her charismatic brother-in-law, also drew attention to the recurring use of the name “Vincent” in the family line: an uncle, great-uncle, grandfather, and great-grandfather bore the name, and they included a sculptor, a Bible teacher, a gold-drawer and jeweler, an acclaimed theologian, and an art dealer in the person of “Uncle Cent”.
It is clear from the letters of both Johanna, Theo, and others, that Vincent’s parents were, despite his foibles and peccadillos, remark- ably accepting and generous throughout his life. This is amply demonstrated by the fact that Vincent was allowed back into their home repeatedly, even after he had attained the age of thirty years, and after he had provoked and confounded his cousins and the extended family by his conduct. This forgiveness and compassion of his parents most likely accounts for the constant theme in his art and letters concerning having his own home, marriage and children, and the domestic life he yearned for.
This kind of nurturing was very unusual in the nineteenth century. Men were required to be self-supporting at fourteen to sixteen years of age. Even in the era of the First World War in Holland, the Dutch-American painter, Willem de Kooning, was gainfully employed, and providing for his mother and siblings at the age of twelve. As noted by Stevens and Swan in De Kooning: An American Master (2004): “In 1916, his pay was one guilder a day. His mother took what he earned and gave him an allowance, the usual practice of the time”.
Nevertheless, at great expense, and considering their modest retirement savings, Vincent’s parents remodeled part of their house into a studio for him in spite of his age and notwithstanding his unusual behavior. He would read in isolation for long periods, dress as a peasant or farm laborer (belying his being a prominent, middle-class clergyman’s son), and often refusing to eat with the rest of the family. Vincent’s father, Theodorus, deserves far more credit than most historians have noted for helping his quirky and often exasperating son at various points in his life. Both Johanna and Theo have written that Vincent was not always an easy person with whom to get along.
Theo later reported:
“It seems as if he were two persons: one marvelously gifted, tender and refined, the other egotistic and hard-hearted. They present themselves in turns, so that one hears him talk first in one way, then in the other, and always with arguments on both sides”.
Johanna tells of numerous, critical times when his father came to Vincent’s aid, demonstrating a consistent and unusually tender concern for his son. Johanna believed that Theodorus’s generosity and treatment of Vincent probably inspired her husband Theo to maintain this support following the father’s death.
This familial solicitude is an important issue to clarify. Several early historical accounts have claimed that Vincent’s parents were rigidly pious and austere; that there were continual quarrels between Vincent and his parents, some of the most intense to do with Vincent’s love of his widowed second cousin, and his rage at her refusal to marry him. But the emergence of Vincent’s vast body of letters, and the memoirs of Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, refute much of this wrong-headed specu- lation. We get a truer sense of the parents’ behavior towards their peculiar son from a childhood event reported by Johanna:
“In one of many instances, he sought a way to reconcile his mother and wife after Vincent had been boxed on the ears for some misbehavior by the grandmother: “The tender-hearted mother was so indignant at this that she did not speak to her mother-in-law for a whole day, and only the sweet-tempered character of the young father succeeded in bringing about a reconciliation”.
Johanna consistently paints a very different picture of Vincent’s childhood than many early historians. Instead of uncompromising rigidity, it is one of tolerance and permissiveness by parents unwilling to be overly punitive with their children—Vincent in particular.
Vincent’s father’s constant efforts to hold the family together and support his son’s artistic efforts were, however, not necessarily common in those times. In contrast to the parental support Vincent received, Henri Matisse, one of the foremost painters of the twentieth century, was disowned by his father when he became an artist. Hilary Spurling, in her The Unknown Matisse (1998) reports:
“It would be hard to exaggerate the shock of Matisse’s defection in a community which dismissed any form of art as an irrelevant, probably seditious and essentially contemptible occupation indulged in by layabouts, of whom the most successful might at best be regarded as a kind of clown. Henri was already well known in Bohain as an invalid, a failure who had proved unfit to take over this father’s shop. Now he had failed as a lawyer too, and was about to become a public laughing stock. ‘The announcement of his departure was a scandal for Matisse’s parents,’ wrote a contemporary who grew up hearing the gossip in Bohain during the painter’s youth: ‘They felt their son’s folly to be a catastrophe that brought shame on the whole family.’
‘My father told me a few days ago, very angry and humiliated, that everyone took me for an imbecile, and yet I wasn’t one,’ Matisse wrote to Jean Biette on 31 July . ‘The worst of it is that he held me responsible.’ The conflict between the two had reached a crisis point. More than forty years later, as an old man in his eighties, Matisse could be moved to tears by memories of his father, ‘to whom he had caused a great suffering, and who had never had confidence in him.’”
Considering the ethos of the late nineteenth century that caused Matisse’s community and parents to reject and denounce him, Vincent’s parents emerged as nothing short of beneficent.
Over the years, some have discredited Vincent’s father in his efforts to have his son sent to a sanitarium, echoing Vincent’s violent out- rage at the attempt. This psychiatric intervention was in fact consistent with his father’s steady compassion for his son. Later, after his own self- confinement at San Remy Asylum, in 1889, Vincent stated that his father’s earlier efforts to have him confined were justified, and regretted that his father’s wish had not been carried out. Vincent later realized that early intervention might have prevented the extremes his illness was ultimately to take.
There is therefore ample documented evidence to show that Theodorus was a major influence in stabilizing and nurturing his troubled son. It was he who rescued Vincent when he became seriously ill as a lay missionary; it was he who supervised Vincent’s care and recovery; and it was his father’s Bible that Vincent painted, in loving remembrance, open and bathed in Rembrandt-like golden light, following his father’s untimely death.
Vincent’s mother, Anna Cornelia Carbentus, was born in 1819 in Den Haag (The Hague). She was the daughter of a bookbinder who, according to Johanna, had the honor of binding the first Constitution of Holland, thereby earning the title of “book-binder to the King”. Johanna goes on to say:
“One of her qualities, next to her deep love for nature, was the great facility with which she could express her thoughts on paper; her busy hands, which were always working for others, grasped eagerly, not only with needle and knitting needle, but also the pen”. Vincent’s mother lived to be 87 years old: and “after having lost her husband and three grown sons, still retained her energy and spirit and bore her sorrow with rare courage”.
Anna in turn described her daughter-in-law Johanna as “a remarkable, lovable woman” possessing “a cheerful, lively spirit”. Van Gogh biographer and family friend, M.E. Tralbaut, writing about Vincent’s mother, mentioned her “deep love of nature, especially for flowers and plants”, and described her love of letter writing which may have directly inspired Vincent’s own passion for the same.
Vincent’s relationship with his brother Theo is well known, but in the following passage, Johanna provides glimpses into his relationships with the rest of his siblings:
“The two brothers were strongly attached to each other from childhood, whereas the eldest sister, recalling their childhood, spoke of Vincent’s teasing ways. Theo remembered only that Vincent could invent such delightful games that once they made him a present of the most beautiful rosebush in their garden to show their gratitude. Their childhood was full of the poetry of Brabant country life; they grew up among the wheat fields, the heath and the pine forests, in that peculiar sphere of a village parsonage, the charm of which remained with them all their lives. It was not perhaps the best training to fit them for the hard struggle that awaited them both; they were still so very young when they had to go out into the world, and during the years following, with what bitter melancholy and in- expressible homesickness did they long for the sweet home in the little village on the heath.”
According to Johanna, Vincent’s sisters (although they clearly loved their brother) had said that at times he could be “absolutely dull and unsociable”. He apparently practiced self-flagellation as a teenager. His teacher, Dr. Mendes da Costa, was to elaborate on this:
“…whenever Vincent felt that his thoughts had strayed further than they should have, he took a cudgel to bed with him and belabored his back with it; and whenever he was convinced that he had forfeited the privilege of passing the night in his bed, he slunk out of the house unobserved at night, and then, when he came back and found the door double-locked, was forced to go and sleep on the floor of a little wooden shed, without bed or blanket. He preferred to do this in winter, so that the punishment, which I am disposed to think arose from mental masochism, might be more severe.”
The compassionate sheltering of Vincent by his parents, however, could not curb the criticisms of their rural neighbors. The village priest, for instance, was convinced that the fledgling painter was responsible for getting a local peasant woman pregnant—a claim vehemently denied by Vincent.
Yet, even with the consistent support of his caring family, Vincent seemed to have an uncontrollable need to expend his powerful life-force to the point of collapse and utter exhaustion. Eventually, this hyperactive, intense activity combined with excessive alcohol, nicotine and caffeine consumption, and malnourishment, inevitably was to lead to mental illness.
That Vincent was able to stave off utter physical collapse for most of his life was mostly due to his underlying belief system in which he viewed complete diligence and hard work as essential components of a meaningful existence.
This heightened work ethic—this relentless drive—was woven deeply into the disposition of the Van Gogh family as a whole, sometimes with dire consequences. Vincent’s father died early in life, as did Theo, and at least one sister, all of whom pursued their brief lives with dogged determination. The Van Goghs ardently believed in devotion and self-immolation as a virtue, as it was for many medieval saints such as St. Francis of Assisi who had exhausted himself by the age forty-five.
Understanding this family trait of the Van Goghs explains why Vincent believed he could reform Sien Hoornik, the disavowed and pregnant prostitute who lived with him for a year and a half. Vincent had the idea that she could be made into a dependable wife through dili- gent efforts. “Sien loves me and I love Sien; we can and will live together on what I should otherwise have lived on alone”, Vincent wrote to Theo, underscoring the basic respect Vincent had for their father and his opinions. This esteem did not ignore his father’s weaknesses, for Vincent mentions in at least one letter his father’s capacity for rage, but he does not say what situations caused the outburst, or how often it flared up. And despite her great love of Vincent’s positive qualities, Johanna’s sensitive account of the family dynamics in her memoirs makes it clear that he almost always precipitated his father’s wrath with angry, irrational behavior himself.
Johanna further elucidates this in her recount of Vincent’s determined attempts to have a relationship with his recently widowed cousin Kee. This single event was to haunt him for the rest of his life, and caused enormous damage to his relationship with his extended family. Vincent exhibited an uncontrollable love and passion for his cousin which truly frightened the young woman. In Johanna’s words:
“The thought of a more intimate relation did not occur to her, and when Vincent at last spoke to her of his love, a very decided no was the immediate reply…Vincent could not abide her decision, and with his innate tenacity he kept on persevering and hoping for a change in her feelings for him. When his letters were not answered, he accused both his and her parents of opposing the match…”
Vincent’s excessiveness and irascibility caused senior members of the family to intercede in order to protect the young woman, which caused Vincent to react in a violent manner. But Vincent’s father was also the town pastor, and Kee one of his flock. Her family brought pressure to bear on him in this capacity. Strong family values were part of the fabric of Dutch middle-class life in the nineteenth century, and disruptive behavior affected the entire community. Vincent’s father, placed in a decidedly awkward position, was forced to ask his errant son to leave the family’s home.
It’s important to keep in mind that Johanna was herself raised in the patriarchal culture of nineteenth century Holland. She identified with Kee, and understood perfectly why Vincent would have been an unsuitable husband; he was unemployed, living at home, and unable to support the young woman and her child. Johanna’s own experience later as a widow with her own child (following Theo’s death in 1891) was to give her, on reflection, a clearer understanding of Kee’s anxiety over the affair.
The intervention by his father and Uncle Stickler (Kee’s father and one of Holland’s most famous theologians) was seen by Vincent as unwarranted meddling. And because he had earlier been fired as an evangelical lay pastor in the mining communities, his mistrust of the clergy was all the more inflamed by his uncle’s attitude.
It was of course Theo who was to exemplify the Van Gogh family’s constancy through his unerring devotion and sustenance of his eccentric brother Vincent. It was Theo, perhaps more than anyone, who recognized that beneath the quirky foibles, there was in Vincent a clear manifestation of genius, and that this needed to be nurtured by the family, especially by Theo himself, in order for it to emerge in all its splendor. As we read from Johanna’s memoirs:
“…oh, the infinitely delicate, tender and lovely [quality] of that relation. How they felt for each other, how they understood each other, and oh, how touching Vincent’s dependence at times – Theo never let him feel it, but now and then he feels it himself, and then his letters are very sad…”
Such dedication was to take an enormous toll on the family as a whole. Theo was most like his father in excessive devotion to the needs of others, and to his own neglect. Perhaps bearing the same name had some effect on his own choices and actions. Both were to succumb to illness and early death.
Despite, however, the inordinate tension Vincent created within the family, we know from Johanna’s later accounts that the Van Gogh ethos—one which embodied compassion above all else—was pervasive. This resounded in Vincent who, notwithstanding all the agony and ill-feeling he may have engendered by his behavior, retained an abiding love for his father, and deeply regretted the fact that he had never painted his portrait. He was later to pour his regrets by painting (in almost ritualistic deference to his father’s memory) a series of look-alikes. One in particular, his portrait of Patience Escalier, bore a striking resemblance to Theodorus van Gogh.
In the last days of his life, Vincent became more and more like his father. It is possible that the portrait of Patience Escalier not only resembled his father; in essence it was a self-portrait of Vincent himself at the end of his journey. The urge to paint his parents seemed to speak of his need for redress—his way of seeking reconciliation from his remaining family members for his excessiveness and lack of fair treatment of others earlier in his life. He was to repeatedly maintain that love was not merely a feeling; real love had to be demonstrated with action.
From her own perspective as a young widow, Johanna has provided us with remarkable insight into the complexities of the Van Goghs. By sheer necessity, she had to quickly grasp the mindset of this extraordinary family in order to understand her own husband Theo, and his role in the whole dynamic. This understanding evolved even further over the quarter century following his death, with her reading, oversee- ing, translating and publishing the Van Gogh letters.
What has clearly emerged from Johanna’s careful consideration of those letters, and what is so enduring about the family Van Gogh, regardless of the stresses and strains imposed to almost breaking point by its unconventional son, is how its members remained true to their core principles and spiritual beliefs—imbued and evident in the genius of Vincent himself.