The Woman Who Made Van Gogh Famous

Would the iconic painter have remained unknown if not for his sister-in-law Johanna?

By Google Arts & Culture

3-Johanna van Gogh-Bonger

One of the most famous artists in history, Vincent van Gogh was a Dutch Post-Impressionist painter whose work became one of the cornerstones of modern art. Largely unknown during his life, it was after his death from suicide aged 37 that his work gained notoriety and attention.

But enough about Van Gogh, who was Johanna?

It wasn't just down to luck that van Gogh's legend grew. It was due in large part to the promotion work of his sister-in-law Johanna van Gogh. She was married to Vincent's brother Theo, and after his death dedicated her life to gaining wider attention for his work.

Imperial Fritillaries in a Copper Vase (1887) by Vincent van GoghMusée d’Orsay, Paris

Following the death of her husband Theo, just a few months after Vincent, she worked tirelessly to translate letters between the brothers and helped to organize exhibitions to show Vincent's work.

Sunflowers (January 1889 - 1889) by Vincent van GoghVan Gogh Museum

What motivated Johanna?

Johanna wanted to carry on Theo's work of bringing his brother to a wider audience and also to shine a light on her husband's role in supporting Vincent's art.

La Mousmé (1888) by Vincent van GoghNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

She kept a diary from the age of 17 which is a major source of information about the relationship between the two brothers and Johanna, and also clearly demonstrates her dedication to bringing their work the recognition she felt it deserved. 

Self-Portrait (1887) by Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853-1890)The Art Institute of Chicago

Why has her role been largely forgotten?

Johanna's role in promoting the work of her brother-in-law was largely forgotten once the wider world had begun to appreciate his genius. In many ways she can be seen as a victim of her own success.

Van Gogh's Bedroom in Arles (1889) by Vincent van GoghMusée d’Orsay, Paris

But there is little doubt that without the years of dedication and hard work by Johanna, the art world would be a very different place. Vincent's enormous impact and influence is still felt to this day, and we have an often overlooked woman to thank for it.

85199 (1970-09) by John OlsonLIFE Photo Collection

Discover more about how women have impacted arts and culture.

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