Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Other Van Gogh Boy

Happy 151st Birthday to Theo van Gogh, younger brother of Vincent, born on this day in 1857. It's no exaggeration to say that without Theo, there'd be no van Gogh artwork to admire; it's a well-known fact that Theo financially supported Vincent throughout his career as an artist. Himself an art dealer in Paris, Theo tried to market his brother's unconventional work and was just beginning to succeed when Vincent died. Theo died six months after Vincent, in January 1891, from complications arising from syphilis. Today Theo lies next to his brother in Auvers-sur-Oise, his body having been moved there in 1914 by his widow, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger.

Theo has languished in his famous brother's shadow for most of the twentieth century, although in recent years, scholars have sought to uncover more about "the other van Gogh." Among the important publications are Jan Hulsker's "Vincent and Theo: A Dual Biography" (1990); the Van Gogh Museum's exhibition catalogue "Theo van Gogh, 1853-1891" (1999); and the VGM's English-translation compilation of letters between Theo and Johanna, "Brief Happiness: The Correspondence of Theo van Gogh and Johanna van Gogh-Bonger" (1999). Theo should be recognized not only for his role in his brother's art, but also for his own career as art dealer. As manager of the Boulevard Montmartre branch of Boussod & Valadon (formerly Goupil's), Theo handled contemporary art of all sorts, and helped promote the careers of Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, and Paul Gauguin. The dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, a very successful contemporary, has tended to overshadow Theo in art historical memory, but Theo was truly an advocate for artists of the day. He was remembered by customers and artists as someone fair and trustworthy. Theo and Vincent built a superb art collection of their own, and many of the paintings and prints remain in the Van Gogh Museum today.

The more one gets to know Theo, it's impossible not to like him. Reading his letters to Johanna, in particular, makes this quiet, dutiful man come to life. And reading the correspondence with Vincent...well, Theo must have been incredibly patient to weather his brother's fits of temper. Vincent's two years living with Theo in Paris from 1886-1888 cemented their bond, and the depth of Theo's love for his brother is eloquently seen in Theo's letters to Vincent, Johanna, and other family members during the long period of Vincent's illness in 1888-1890. Try reading the last letter in the "Brief Happiness" collection -- from Theo to Johanna, describing Vincent's death and funeral -- without getting misty-eyed. It's probably accurate to say extreme grief at losing Vincent hastened Theo's own demise.

So here's to Theo -- a good man, a good brother, and a gift to art history.


Julianne Douglas said...

What a wonderful tribute! Thanks for sharing this. We seldom think what it must be like to be the sibling of someone famous.

Margaret said...

Fascinating post! I'm afraid I've never heard much about Theo before. What an interesting contrast between himself and his brother!

By the way, I fixed my post! I guess one of the hazards of the internet is that you're never sure who you're talking with/about!