MEMORIES OF MY MOTHER
by Vincent Willem van Gogh (Johanna’s Son)
Johanna Gesina Bonger, Theo’s wife, was born in Amsterdam on October 4, 1862. She was the fifth child of a family of seven. Her father was an insurance broker. He was very fond of music, and my mother particularly remembered the evening performances of quartets in the parental home.
As was usual in those days, the two eldest sons went to the Commercial High School and then became office apprentices. It was a matter of course that the eldest daughters assisted the mother in her housekeeping. The younger ones learned more. My mother completed her studies of the English language, her youngest sister went to the conservatory of music and her youngest brother studied law (W. A. Bonger, afterward professor of sociology and criminology at Amsterdam University).
My mother’s favourite brother was Andries (Dries), to whom she came next in years. In Paris he was a friend of Theo van Gogh, and also knew Vincent Vincent often calls him André. Later in Amsterdam he went into the insurance business. He was an intimate friend of Odilon Redon’s, of whose work he owned a large collection. He also owned various pictures by Vincent, Cézanne and Émile Bernard (whom he knew well).
Next door to the Bonger family on the Weteringschans (the name of the drive) lived the Weissman family. My grandmother was one of Father Weissman’s sisters, and the children grew up together. One of them was A. W. Weissman, the architect of the Municipal Museum (Stedelijk Museum) in Amsterdam, and a writer on the subject of seventeenth-century and later architecture. His Reminiscences were published in Yearbook No. XLII of the Genootschap (Society) Amstelodamum–1948; among other things he gives a description of the Weteringschans of his youth.
Johanna Bonger was a cheerful and lively child. She studied English, and passed her Examinations A and B, in the philological and literary sections respectively, equal to college degrees of our days. In connection with this she stayed some months in London, where she worked in the library of the British Museum. For her examination it was required that she should make a thorough study of one author in particular; she chose Shelley. Like so many young people of those days, she greatly admired Multatuli (pseudonym of Eduard Douwes Dekker [1820-1887], Dutch author and pioneer of modern thinking), whose influence she underwent too.
From her seventeenth year onward she kept a diary, in which she described her feelings and experiences with great candour and clarity of expression.
At the age of twenty-two she became a teacher of English at a boarding school for girls at Elburg; after that she taught at the High School for Girls at Utrecht.
In 1889 she married Theo van Gogh, a friend of her brother Andries, who was also living at Paris.
In 1891, after a year and a half of happiness, Johanna returned to Holland with her little son, some furniture, and a great number of pictures, which at the time were looked upon as having no value at all. An inventory of pictures in which are to be found names like Monticelli, Gauguin, Van Gogh, drawn up by a well-known personality of those days, mentions 200 paintings by Vincent van Gogh: 2000 guilders. From various quarters she received the advice to “clear off” the pictures, but she never thought of it.
My mother did not want to return to the house of her parents and sisters. In the spring of 1891 she went to live at Bussum, then still a small and quiet village, 15 miles from Amsterdam. There lived a friend from her schooldays, Mrs. Veth-Dirks, the wife of a painter.
Her diary, in which she had not written during her short, happy marriage, starts again in 1891 with the words “Tout n’est que rêve!” (Everything is but a dream!).
In order to give an impression of the life and thoughts of my mother in those years some fragments from this diary follow:
November 15, 1891
In order to give him (the child) healthy fresh air I went to live at Bussum–to earn a living for both of us I am taking boarders–now I must be careful that I shall not be degraded to a household drudge by all the housekeeping worries, but I must keep my spirit alive. Theo taught me much about art, no let me rather say–he has taught me much about life.
Besides the care for the child he left me yet another task, Vincent’s work–to show it and to let it be appreciated as much as possible. All the treasures that Theo and Vincent collected–to preserve them inviolate for the child–that also is my task. I am not without an object in life, but I feel lonely and deserted.
Tonight for the first time I have been able to work again. The first half-year that I lived here, it cost me such an immense effort learning the most ordinary household duties that I could not think of anything else.
Now and then I read something–but only an ordinary novel or a newspaper. The household machine is in working order, and though it keeps me busy the whole day, still it no longer takes all my thoughts and in the evenings I can work again . . . .
February 24, 1892
This afternoon two painters–Verkade and Serrurier. It was a treat to speak French once more. They thought Vincent’s work beautiful, it was such an unusual thing–to hear those exclamations of admiration. People in Holland are not generous with appreciation when it concerns Vincent’s work. It reminded me of those good days in Paris.
Tomorrow night there is in “Arti” [the artist’s association in Amsterdam with its own exhibition rooms] the exhibition of Vincent’s drawings–I have great expectations of it–it is a feeling of indescribable triumph–when I think that it has come at last–the appreciation–the thinking it beautiful. I must go there to hear what people say, what attitude they will assume–those who used to laugh at Vincent and poke fun at him.
During January and February I have been busy all the time with the paintings. After an endless correspondence on the part of Isaäcson and a visit by Toorop (1858-1928, a Dutch painter) there are now finally ten paintings with Buffa in Amsterdam, twenty with Oldenzeel 1 in Rotterdam, in December an exhibition in Pulchri,2 and now on Thursday, February 25th, the one in “Arti.”
It was a fine evening–everybody whom I wanted came to see them–Breitner, Israëls, Witsen, Jan Veth, Jan Stricker and Kee Vos, Martha van Leden. It was crowded. People liked them. Now I am going to start with the letters in earnest and with zeal . . . . I have now just about brought my diary up to date, and will faithfully continue with it. The child must later on be able to judge the life of his mother, what she has thought, felt, and willed. Her diary, and the letters of his father and his uncle, with these he can build up their lives out of the past.
This morning I was at Wisselingh’s3 in Amsterdam–and enjoyed it. It is like Theo’s small rooms on Boulevard Montmartre–somewhat less distinguished, the aspect, I mean–but there were splendid things. A small Corot, a little mill on the top of a green hill–a charming Monticelli, trees in blossom, a splendid Neuhuys, a child and a cradle, a still life by Vollon, cool and distinguished in tone, a Michel–magnificent–a somber, fantastic Breitner–I have not seen so much splendour united in a long time. I had taken along a little thing of Vincent’s–but a very, very beautiful one–I showed it to them, and now they want to have some on commission. What a triumph. I am so glad of it–it made me happy all day long. When this afternoon I came back by train with the child to Bussum the sky was so delightfully beautiful–every time a golden sun shooting out from behind white, vapory clouds–it was as if it were Theo’s face–rejoicing in the recognition of his brother! This evening a letter came from Toorop, telling me that the exhibition at The Hague will come off soon now–in the middle of this month–what a storm of emotions this will cause. We must gather all our courage before then, and be resolute in face of the enemies, for how many they will be . . . .
These last days I have spent every free hour I had absorbed in the letters. I postponed it far too long, but from now on I am going to undertake it as a regular task–working steadily on until it is finished. Not with the passion of the first days–for then I was occupied with it until deep into the night–such extravagances I must not permit myself. My foremost duty is to be spry and healthy to be able to care for the child. In thought I am living wholly with Theo and Vincent, 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–often I wept over them.
My darling–my dear–dear Theo–at every word, between every two lines, I am thinking of you–how you made me part of yourself in the short time we were together–I am still living with you, by you. May your spirit go on inspiring me, then everything will be all right with our little fellow.
Who will write that book about Vincent? . . . .
Some of Vincent’s pictures are on show at Oldenzeel’s in Rotterdam–in the Nieuwe Rotterdamse Courant there were two articles by Johan de Meester, and a very enthusiastic one in another paper. To me it gives an inexpressible satisfaction – that in this way he is becoming more and more known. On Wednesday I went to Leiden with young Vincent–where we celebrated Wil’s birthday very pleasantly–and next day I went to Rotterdam to talk things over with Oldenzeel himself, and to see how it was. He has got a magnificent house–nearly a marble palace, and in one of the corridors were the drawings–splendid. The paintings were not hanging so well–round some of them he had fabricated frames that made them ugly–but in autumn he wants to have another exhibition, and then it can be magnificent . . . .
A letter from Toorop that he will arrange the Vincent exhibition–this at least is another load off my mind. The pictures have gone now–the ship has put to sea! . . . .
A rainy Sunday–got acquainted with Gavarni through de Goncourt’s book–I so much like to compare the lives of other artists with that of Vincent’s. Gavarni also often [lived in] poverty and misery–also formed his talent with difficulty and by working–not born with it.
I only read the book cursorily, but I am going to study it carefully, and than look at the lithographs I have, leisurely . . . .
Tonight a letter from Pulchri–the exhibition will open on May 6–in the new galleries So that is settled.
A beautiful sunny day. In the tree in front of the house a blackbird is singing to its heart’s content. How new all this is for me again–these birds–flowers and plants–it is only now that I discover that I was educated in a house in town, and that I never was in the country when I was young . . . .
Since a few days Mother van Gogh staying here . . . .
In the afternoon we go and sit in the glass veranda together, very cosily, and talk about all kinds of things, family matters, all the memories of the past, which I like to hear so much. I must get to know a lot of things about Vincent–and then I am going to write it all down.
Next Sunday the Vincent exhibition in The Hague–what will that day bring? Satisfaction or disappointment–how long I have been hoping for it–at last it will be a fact . . . .
The opening was on May 16. It was not beautiful–not enough care had been spent on it for that–but there was space and light to see the pictures that was all. Many people came in the afternoon. Most of all I was pleased to see old Israëls.4 Some of them he thought very fine, but he said there were impassable bounds between things that can be painted and things that cannot, and Vincent had often wanted to paint things that were impossible, for instance the sun.
But where he had chosen things that were within his power, he had given much beauty . . . . Toorop was charming as always, kind, simple, affable.
Next Sunday opening of the Selection exhibition. I hope I can go there with Wil . . . .
Opening of the Selection Exhibition. Oh, how many beautiful things I have seen. “The Little Bride” by Thijs Maris, it is fragile and tender like our happiness. And that large piece by Israëls, “Alone in the World,” it is gloomy and sad . . . . . I grieve because they did not select two more beautiful ones of Vincent’s. . . . I am beginning to make a plan for an exhibition in Arti of everything of Vincent’s work. Once this will have to happen.
How lonely I felt in the midst of this crowd of people. The kindest one of them was Derkinderen,5 his pleasant greeting has remained in my memory.
Toorop was there, Breitner, Van Eeden, Jolles,6 all of them people who are only half known to me. . . .
Nearest to my heart is the exhibition of Vincent’s works which will be held in the Panorama Gallery in December. I spoke with Van Kesteren7 myself, and Jan Veth8 and Holst9 will arrange it; this is again something to look forward to . . . .
Yesterday was a strange day. First I took a walk in the afternoon with Mother and the child, along the ‘s Graveland Road. It was a deliciously quiet autumn day. After dinner I went with them to Amsterdam in order to hear Bep10 sing in “Ons Huis.”11 It was a pleasant sight; the hall not full of daintily dressed ladies and gentlemen, but full of (common) people in their shabby clothes with tired and weather-beaten faces, who at long last also had a night of enjoyment and recreation. 1 sat watching the expression on their faces during the various items. Grieg’s “Sonata” left them cold, nobody understood a note of it. The songs that Bep sang were greatly enjoyed, and during the pathetic passages they became very sentimental, their eyes swimming with tears. The recitations were thought beautiful too, “The Blind” by Van Beers, “They Were Eight” and “The Knitting Girl.” It was a nice evening. And the view on the town at night from the railway-station was enchanting and beautiful.
. . . Tomorrow I shall start some translating, I must earn a bit more. . . .
So for a number of years my mother translated short stories from the French and the English to be used as serials for De Kroniek (The Chronicle), a weekly edited by P. L. Tak, in which modern literary and political life found expression. The publisher during the first years was the firm of C. M. van Gogh, Vincent’s uncle’s firm (see letters); every week it featured prints by Marius Bauer12 and a series of lithographs, “Well known Contemporaries,” by Jan Veth. In a letter to a friend she wrote regarding Vincent’s letters:
“The letters have taken a large place in my life already, since the beginning of Theo’s illness. The first lonely evening which I spent in our home after my return I took the package of letters. I knew that in them I should find him again. Evening after evening that was my consolation after the miserable days. It was not Vincent whom I was seeking but Theo. I drank in every word, I absorbed every detail. I not only read the letters with my heart, but with my whole soul. And so it has remained all the time. I have read them, and reread them, until I saw the figure of Vincent clearly before me. Imagine for one moment my experience, when I came back to Holland–realizing the greatness and the nobility of that lonely artist’s life. Imagine my disappointment at the indifference which people showed, when it concerned Vincent and his work . . . . Sometimes it made me very sad. I remember how last year, on the day of Vincent’s death, I went out late in the evening. The wind blew, it rained, and it was pitch-dark. Everywhere in the houses I saw light and people gathered around the table. And I felt so forlorn that for the first time I understood what Vincent must have felt in those times, when every body turned away from him, when he felt “as if there were no place for him on earth . . . .” I wished that I could make you feel the influence Vincent had on my life. It was he who helped me to accommodate my life in such a way that I can be at peace with myself. Serenity–this was the favorite word of both of them, the something they considered the highest. Serenity–I have found it. Since that winter, when I was alone, I have not been unhappy–“sorrowful yet always rejoicing,” that was one of his expressions, which I have come to understand now.”
Our big house at Bussum, “Villa Helma,” was often full of people. Many of my mother’s lasting friendships date from that time. In the course of the years several people who played a certain part in the artistic or intellectual life stayed at our house for some time. Our living room was not large but very cosy (in a Dutch house living and dining room are one). On the mantelpiece hung “The Potato Eaters”; on the opposite side over the cupboard “The Harvest”–over the door the “Boulevard de Clichy.” Over the piano there hung four pictures of Monticelli’s ; next to the cupboard Guillaumin’s and Bernard’s self-portraits and next to the mantelpiece the “Vase with Flowers” by Vincent (the violet vase). From the rim of the white porcelain lampshade of the paraffin lamp over the table there hung a few Japanese prints. In another room there was the big picture by Gauguin (from Martinique) over Theo’s sofa, which was covered with an oriental rug; at that time this was customary, now it would be called a sacrilege. In the corridor downstairs were Vincent’s drawings of the courtyard of the hospital at Arles and the fountain at St. Rémy; in the bedroom the three “Orchards in Bloom,” the “Almond Blossoms,” the “Pieta” after Delacroix, and “La Veillée”after Millet. There was a garden around the house with many trees.
Although my mother was kept busy with her housekeeping, she occupied herself with me quite a lot; she kept the afternoons free for this.
People came from time to time to see the pictures. The exhibitions, continually becoming more numerous, gave my mother a lot of work. Packing, often including the making of cases, was for many years done in the house, which caused a lot of dust, noise and cleaning up.
Fortunately there was a carpenter in the village (Verkouteren, afterward succeeded by “Janus”) who had been taught by a painter how to pack pictures.
I well remember expeditions with my mother to the goods shed of the railway station for sending off or receiving cases.
My mother formed her opinions independently, and therefore her ideas now and then deviated from those of her family. She became a member of the then young socialist party, which brought her into contact with other people. However, she did not take any part in public life, but she devoted herself to her child, her second husband and other things.
In 1901 she married Johan Cohen Gosschalk, a painter and writer on art, who was a good deal younger than she. We then moved to a house built by Willem Bauer, a brother of Marius Bauer (see above).
He had a fine, sensitive mind, but his health was poor. After his death (in 1912) my mother said that through him she had often learned to see things more clearly and purely.
In 1903 we went to live in Amsterdam. The same arrangement of the pictures was repeated. For twenty-three years my mother lived in the same flat, Brachthuijzer Street 2, at the corner of Koninginneweg.
During the summer of 1905 there was a great exhibition of Vincent’s work in the Stedelijk (Municipal) Museum at Amsterdam; my mother was able to hire its galleries for this purpose. In two months there were two thousand visitors.
At the time the Rijksmuseum at Amsterdam declined a loan of any picture by Vincent; it only would expose two drawings if they were offered as a gift. In other countries more exhibitions were held, among others several at Cassirer’s in Berlin. The Folkwang Museum at Hagen in Westphalia was the first to have pictures by Vincent in its collection; around 1936 these were sold in Amsterdam, In 1910 Vincent’s paintings were shown for the first time in London at the Post-Impressionist Exhibition, and many people still laughed at them. Now the “Sunflowers” and the “Chair” are in the Tate Gallery.
All through the years my mother had been steadily engaged arranging Vincent’s letters in chronological order; many of them bore no date. The sequence could only by fixed by comparison of facts or references. In the beginning she copied them by hand, later on they were typewritten. The proofs she corrected herself.
The first volume of the Dutch edition was published in the spring of 1914. In 1915 she moved to New York, where she started translating Vincent’s letters into English. At her death, September 2, 1925, she had reached letter 526. She had been back in Holland since 1919. During her lifetime a second printing of the Dutch edition was required, which meant a great success for a small country; she rejoiced in it very much.
My mother used to read much; later on she took a special interest in biographies. Young people liked her very much and her company was always interesting and worth while.
At her burial the directors of the Wereldbibliotheek, the publishers of the Dutch edition of the letters, sent a wreath with the inscription: Faithfulness, Devotion, Love.
V. W. VAN GOGH