How Van Gogh paid for the care of his mentally ill sister after his death
Throughout his life, Vincent Van Gogh
was penniless. He committed suicide shortly after being in an asylum. But two decades later,
the paintings he gave to his sister were sold,
and the money was spent to keep her in a mental hospital. The prices were so high that the proceeds covered several years of treatment. This is evidenced by the letters published in the new book.
The Van Gogh family has gone through a series of tragedies. Theo, Vincent’s brother, known as a die-hard supporter of the artist, died six months after him, suffering severely from syphilis. Cor, the youngest of the brothers, committed suicide in South Africa during the Boer War. In 2015, his biography was published under the title Unknown Van Gogh. But until now, writers have not paid much attention to their three sisters.
Vincent van Gogh, portrait of Willemina ostensibly at the age of 19
Willemina, the youngest of the three girls, shared her older brother’s love for art and literature. In 1888, while living in Arles, Vincent painted a painting, which he called Memory of the Garden in the Family Home. In his letter to Wil, he noted that the two women in the foreground were "you and our mother". The artist portrayed his sister with a red umbrella and (as he himself claimed) in a Scottish tartan shawl, as "a character from Dickens’s novels" — this was a tribute to her literary interests.
Just like Vincent, Wil tried herself in different professions. She worked as a governess, florist, nurse and teacher. But she became famous as a member of the early feminist movement, which became an important phenomenon in the development of women’s rights in the Netherlands.
Like her brother, Wil suffered from mental illness. Vincent ended up in a mental hospital in Saint-Remy in 1888 after he cut off his earlobe and presented it to a prostitute in a fit of madness. His sister was admitted to the hospital in 1902, when she was 40. Little is known about her condition, there are only scanty lines in the medical card: "She is angry and behaves wildly, screams, bites, scratches and fights. She refuses to eat and is hallucinating." The doctor wrote that when the woman got to the asylum, she "talked about suicide" and probably really tried to commit suicide.
Later, however, Wil retreated into herself and barely spoke. Elder sister Anna described her bleak existence in the asylum: "The only book she reads from time to time is Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Lee, and the rest of the time she just sits and sews for the nurses… In the morning she feeds the birds on the porch, but if the nanny invites her to take a walk in the garden, she refuses." Anna wrote about buying "soft leather slippers" to make her sister feel comfortable: "I try anything and I continue to hope that something will reach her". But over the years, Willemina’s condition only worsened. She lived at the asylum for almost half of her life and died in 1941, during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, the last of her brothers and sisters.
Three sisters of Vincent Van Gogh (from left to right): elder Anna, middle Elizabeth and younger Willemina
In 1909, Anna wrote to her sister-in-law Johanna Bonger, Theo’s wife, that the sale of the artwork that Vincent had donated to Willemina allowed her to pay medical expenses: "I remember when Wil received the paintings from Vincent, but what a twist! Who would have thought that Vincent would help the treatment of Wil in this way?"
After an exhibition at the Stedelejk Museum in Amsterdam in 1905, Van Gogh’s paintings became a real success.
"Theo always insisted that this would happen, but what an unforeseen turn, what unexpected results," Anna wondered.
She was the only of six Van Gogh children who led a relatively normal life — she got married, gave birth to two children, and died in 1930. The middle sister, Elizabeth (Liz), also experienced tragedy. As a nurse, she took care of a woman with cancer, fell in love with her husband, and became pregnant in 1886. To hide this, she told her family that she was going to England with a friend, but in fact, with her lover.
The couple never crossed the Channel, but stayed at a hotel on the Normandy coast, where Liz gave birth to a baby girl named Hubertine. The baby was left to a young widow, and the real mother came to her daughter only 35 years later, in 1922. Van Gogh’s sister hoped to take Hubertine home, but was refused. The niece of Vincent, about whom he knew nothing, ended her days delivering sweets and stationery in Marseilles. She died in 1965 penniless.
Women Gathering Olives (1889) is one of the paintings that Vincent Van Gogh presented to his mother and younger sister. "I hope that you will like the women in the olive trees at least a little — I sent the drawing to Gauguin, and he decided that they were good…", the artist wrote. The painting is now kept in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
The tragedies and upheavals in the lives of these women became the subject of a book entitled The Van Gogh Sisters. It is built on hundreds of previously unpublished letters written by sisters, their friends and family members. The work was released in April 2021. Its author, the Dutch art critic Willem-Jan Verlinden, remarked:
"All the letters were written in Dutch, and were not translated into English, so they were not previously available to the general public."
The correspondence is kept in the archives of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Institutional Senior Research Fellow Hans Luijten, who prepared the biography book All About Vincent, said: "This is a real gold mine with interesting remarks. I want to give an overview of what family members say about Vincent. It’s very educational. We will publish them all consistently."
Vincent wrote to Willemina about The Church at Auvers painting shortly before his death: "…the building seems purple against the sky of a pure and deep cobalt shade; stained glass windows — like ultramarine blotches; the roof is purple and partly orange. In the foreground are green plants in bloom and sand with a pink stream of sunlight in it." The canvas is now part of the collection of the Musée d’Orsay
There is also a correspondence between Willemina and Margaretha Meijboom,
whose brother also suffered from mental health problems. When it became known that Vincent cut off his ear and ended up in an asylum,
she consoled the devastated Willemina in a letter dated 1888: "This poor fellow,
is so sick — I mean,
in that way — and is so far away at that… I perfectly understand your feelings… Sending to a sanatorium sounds cruel,
but did you know that all experts recommend not to postpone it? Patients suffer less when they receive the right treatment." She continues: "What a blessing that he was not alone,
and there was help nearby. Who will inform you of what’s going on? Paul [Gauguin
] or a psychiatric asylum doctor?
On 27 July 1890,
Van Gogh shot himself in the chest with a pistol. Theo rushed from Paris to Auvers and was with his brother when he died of the wound two days later. The fact that three of Vag Gogh’s six brothers and sisters attempted or committed suicide suggests a possible genetic disorder.
Based on materials from The Guardian, The Art Newspaper and several other sources