Hans Luijten is not a well-known name to me, but a statement by the historian and Dutch literature scholar recently quoted in a New York Times Magazine article captured my imagination at a time when the main subject of conversations around me concerned the COVID virus and resultant vaccines. “If the virus comes into your life, it never goes away; there’s no vaccine for it,” said Luijten, author of more than 2,000 pages examining the letters of Vincent van Gogh. The article goes on to offer insight into unknown factors behind the emergence of van Gogh as a revered figure whose easily recognized work is known and loved by people from all walks of life around the globe.
The ubiquitous nature of continued interest in van Gogh is also demonstrated in another recent New York Times article quoting Tsukasa Kodera, a curator and professor at Osaka University in Japan. Kodera’s own research into understanding what motivated the artist’s suicide has focused on an enigmatic young aspiring painter who shared a close friendship with van Gogh during the feverishly productive period of his last days on earth and who “might have received drawings or paintings as a gift” and with whom he “might have exchanged works.” In response to the van Gogh virus entering his life, the Japanese professor has been hunting information about Edmund Walpole Brooke for the past decade; he is currently quite excited about the possibility that an original Brooke has finally turned up.
While rummaging through a thrift shop in Saco, Maine, in April, Katherine Mathews discovered a small watercolor of a Japanese woman and child in front of a dwelling surrounded by lush foliage; the painting bore the signature “E.W. Brooke.” In his letters to his brother and art dealer Theo, Vincent appears to value Brooke as a companion, but found the younger artist’s work “rather lifeless;” however, Ms. Mathews’ $45 thrift shop purchase may shed new light on Brooke, who died in Kobe, Japan, at the age of 58 without ever having achieved success, as well as illuminate the last months of the life of a beloved genius.
When Vincent van Gogh died at the age of 37, he had not yet received fame, or even recognition. I had always assumed that his becoming a star posthumously was due to the efforts of his beloved brother, but was startled to learn that Theo had himself suffered a complete physical collapse three months following Vincent’s suicide, and died shortly thereafter. Vincent van Gogh’s current status was apparently made possible through the until now little-known efforts of Jo van Gogh-Bonger, Theo’s wife, who found herself widowed after just 21 months of marriage.
The virus afflicting and inspiring Tsukasa Kodera and Hans Luijten also spurred Vincent van Gogh’s sister-in-law, apparently became the driving force of Jo’s life, according to research documented by Luijten. Jo, living on her own surrounded by not only Vincent’s paintings but also his letters, came to realize that the letters were keys to the art, providing biography essential to understanding the impetus and motivation behind the pictures. This young mother with no experience in promotion or sales shared the stream-of-consciousness letters Vincent had written to her husband explaining the feelings behind the pictures, the emotions explaining the style and method used. In part because she was a woman, Jo’s efforts were at first dismissed, but her dedication and passion eventually moved art critics to fuse art and artist, seeing Vincent’s life and work as she did — as one powerful entity.
Believing in Vincent’s genius and honoring her late husband’s commitment to his brother’s work, Jo van Gogh-Bonger taught herself art history, learned how to promote and sell the work of her brother-in-law, and succeeded mightily in her efforts in an era when women were not expected to excel at anything other than domestic pursuits. Thankfully for us all, the virus that came into her life at a young age never went away, resulting in a lasting legacy of art that still moves and inspires almost 100 years following her death — an uplifting “virus story” for our time.