The Extraordinary Legacy
of Two Remarkable Women
In additional to their adaptability and admiration of Vincent, Johanna and Helene shared other essential qualities which enabled them to achieve great things. They were emboldened to share their art with others because they had been deeply impacted by how it inspired and uplifted them. The Socialist tenor of the era encouraged his kind of thinking. Both manifested unswerving devotion to ideals and in their formative years had read the philosophical writings of 18th century German Idealist thinkers. At any age such reading is demanding but tackling such work in ones teenage years is an indication of a serious mind. Both were highly literate young women who by adulthood could hold their own with the best intellects of their day.
Johanna’s immersion in art began with Theo, and their love letters make this maturation evident—she was curious and wanted to understand arts purposes and cultural values. During their brief marriage she was exposed to some the most radical art of the age and met many of progressive painters of the era. Jo absorbed an enormous amount of information rapidly and applied life’s lessons pragmatically.
Following Theo’s death and her move to Bussum, Jo surrounded herself with artists, art historians and specialists from whom she continued to learn. By the time she launched her career as an art dealer she was familiar with the most important art movements of the time. Helene and Johanna both mastered multiple cultural communication systems. Where Helene absorbed Dutch to further her wellbeing — Johanna mastered English and French for her role as an international art dealer. In what other ways were Johanna and Helene alike? How is it that they took upon themselves the important international educative roles they played?
Johanna was trained as a high school teacher, translator and communicator with what would now be called considered college master’s degree. Johanna corresponded with Vincent and took enormous satisfaction reading the letters exchanged by Theo and Vincent. She was able to continue to understand the depth of connection between the brothers by reading their correspondence after they died. She spent nearly 24 years cataloging and preparing their letters for publication. Then she penned a lengthy introduction to the letters which reveal a depth of insight into the minds and motivations of the two brilliant men unafraid of opening their inner lives. Historians have remarked that even if Vincent had never painted — his letters would have brought him fame. The letters are unique in their openness and honesty which resulted from their private purposes. They were never intended for any other purpose than as a line of discourse between brothers with an uncommon concern for one another. Johanna and Helene saw the importance of sharing their profound exchange with the world. It was a model of what emotional transparency involves — truth telling and admission of failure. Even the self doubt that Vincent felt was exposed in a stream of confessional communication.
Far from delusional as some critics have claimed the letters convince one of their rationality by their authenticity and pragmatic analysis. One can read of Vincent’s taking a beating by a violent landlord for instance—a beating many men would be reluctant to admit. There is the account of his genital infection and hospitalization an admission of great pain and urgent need. From start to finish Van Gogh’s letters are full of such disclosures and one would be remiss to claim the opposite of Van Gogh a fabricator and delusional liar as some have gone so far as to claim.
The foundational transparency of the letters is a primary source of the Van Gogh legacy. Those like Jo and Helene who helped create and sustain his legacy offered something rare in our world —sincere truth telling. This rarity is also found in Johanna and Helene for they emulated the honesty which is a hallmark of Vincent’s letters. He accepted his limitations with humility and tried to make up for it with audacity and intensity. Similarly Johanna and Helene made no pretense by claiming special status as cultural benefactors. They viewed themselves at service to humanity. They took satisfaction knowing that the cultural contributions they were making would be longstanding. This conviction gave them great satisfaction and carried them though dark times and repeated failures. Making Van Gogh a household name was not a task anyone would readily take upon themselves. But they believed that Vincent’s life work involved the same uncertainty for him to realize his goals.
This kind of concern is expressed in the care and concern Johanna and Helene manifested in bringing Van Gogh into the world in their own written accounts, published letters, interviews and the exhibitions they arranged. They understood that if Van Gogh’s achievements were to be recognized they would have to do so with unswerving effort and concentrated vision. All participants in this legacy: Theo, Vincent, Johanna and Helene were faced with tragic setbacks and repeated defeat. It is to the benefit of anyone who struggles against odds to know that lasting achievements are made by flawed individuals under difficult circumstances.
Johanna’s memoirs make it evident that she and Theo had planned to publish Vincent’s letters. They had discussed this even before his death. They may have also mused over the idea of housing a collection of his paintings in a museum venue; something Johanna never achieved. It would be her son who would carry this out after her death.
On the other hand there is no proof that Johanna knew of Helene’s desire to create a museum. But whether of not she did know of it, Johanna indirectly supported it by allowing Helene access (albeit by independent art agents) to acquire many of Vincent’s greatest works. This kind of sharing of great works is remarkable if Jo had in mind keeping the best of his work for herself. She did not seem to worry about it.
It is puzzling that Van Gogh’s own accounts of his life and actions have been discredited by some historians. Their argument is that he was an unreliable source because his motives in writing was largely to manipulate and mislead; either his brother or family. What is interesting about those who have made such claims is that a second body of materials exist namely letters and testimonials of those who knew Van Gogh and which confirm Van Gogh’s personal claims and observations. A good example of this is his Borinage mining letters in which testimonials by miners and others who knew Vincent during this time confirmed the reliability of Vincent’s reports.
Perhaps the most convincing proofs of Van Gogh’s innate honesty are the final letters he sent to his mother in which he admitted that earlier prior to 1885 and his father’s sudden death that his own behavior had been regrettable and savage. He asked her to forgive him and admitted his violent outbursts against his parents had been unwarranted. He was able to see that he had been out of control and following his confinement at Sainte Remy where he witnessed pathologically ill patients he saw the danger of his uncontrolled anger. His final days as a 37 year old man show the beginning of personal insight and growth — one can wish he had lived much longer and benefitted from this wisdom.
Other important sources that offer a balanced account of his life include Johanna, Emile Bernard, Paul Gauguin and Vincent’s sisters. From these sources one finds that he was truthful in his personal reporting. When he was ill he told of it and described the stages and states of his recovery. This was especially the case following what his doctors identified as severe epileptic seizures. Vincent offered a nearly clinical account of what preceded his seizures and what it was like to reclaim his functions following days of recurrent outbreaks.
Far from delusional ramblings, the letters of Van Gogh are a reliable source for assessing his states of mind. He doesn’t ever allude to an alternate life or confuse himself with a character in a Dickens novel. When he used metaphor he was clearly aware of doing so delusional people do not make a clear distinction between reality and imagination.
Writing in private journals or letters allows one to reflectively filter ones thoughts. This reflective process involves appraising intense emotions and vague thoughts in the analytical state of mind writing demands. Historians are therefore at a great advantage when first-person accounts exist of the thought-life of complex individuals such as Vincent or Helene.
In describing her art collection Helene called it a “Self Portrait” and like her diaries she believed the works she acquired revealed her private side. In writing about her collection her analysis affords an avenue of insight into what the collection meant to her. It aids an outside observer to better understand what she hoped viewers would receive from her collection. The account of her collecting and the meanings she ascribed to it could be called a ‘double reflection’ for we hear her assessing her personal motives in two ways. One is an analysis of her art collection itself and its assembled value— the second is an inquiry into her state of mind and motivations in assembling it in the first place.