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The Woman Who Made van Gogh

Jo, meanwhile, continued to believe that the letters to Theo — in which Vincent came through as a romantic figure, a tragic figure — would open up his soul to America and beyond. Having the letters published in English was her last great objective.

It proved to be a race against time. Her health was failing — she had Parkinson’s disease — and the publisher she had contracted with, Alfred Knopf, wanted to produce only an abridged edition, to which she would not agree. She returned to Europe and lived her last years in a spacious apartment on Amsterdam’s stately Koninginneweg and in a country house in Laren. Her son, Vincent, and his wife, Josina, moved close to her, and Jo found happiness in the hour she spent each day with her grandchildren. Otherwise, she kept remarkably fixated on her life’s mission: shipping canvases to one exhibition after another, wrangling with the publisher, all the while coping with the pain and other symptoms of her illness.

If anything, her obsession seems to have grown as she neared the end of her life. She got into a friendship-ending argument over a modest amount of money with Paul Cassirer, a German dealer who had worked closely with her to promote van Gogh. When a romanticized novel about the van Gogh brothers appeared in German in 1921, she found the factual liberties it took deeply upsetting. Requests for paintings for possible exhibitions kept coming at a furious pace — Paris, Frankfurt, London, Cleveland, Detroit — and she remained closely involved, until she no longer could. She died in 1925 at age 63.

The first English-language edition of the letters, by Constable & Company in London and Houghton Mifflin in the United States, appeared two years later, in 1927. It contained an introduction by Jo, in which she furthered the myth of the suffering artist and highlighted her husband’s role as well: “It was always Theo alone who understood him and supported him.” Seven years later, Irving Stone published his best-selling novel “Lust for Life,” based heavily on the letters, about the relationship between the van Gogh brothers. It in turn became the source material for the 1956 movie starring Kirk Douglas. By then, the myth was ingrained. No less a figure than Pablo Picasso referred to van Gogh’s life — “essentially solitary and tragic” — as “the archetype of our times.”

There was one other homage Jo paid to her brother-in-law and her husband, possibly the most remarkable of all. Late in her life, while she was translating the letters into English, she arranged to have Theo’s remains disinterred from the Dutch cemetery where he had been laid to rest and reburied in Auvers-sur-Oise, next to Vincent. As with the Amsterdam exhibition, she undertook the operation like a general, overseeing every detail, down to commissioning matching gravestones. Hans Luijten told me he found it a striking manifestation of her single-minded devotion. “She wanted to have them side by side forever,” Luijten said.

A wife’s digging up her husband’s remains is such a startling image it yanks one back to the central question of Jo’s life: her motivation. Why, finally, did she fasten herself to this cause and carry it across the length of her life? Certainly her belief in Vincent’s genius and her desire to honor Theo’s wishes were strong. And Luijten noted to me that in promoting van Gogh’s art, she believed she was also furthering her socialistic political beliefs.

But people act from smaller, simpler motivations as well. Jo’s 21 months with Theo were the most intense of her life. She experienced Paris, joy, a revolution in color and culture. With Theo’s help she vaulted out of her careful, conventional world and gave herself over to passion. Moving today through the museum that houses all the paintings Jo couldn’t bear to part with, another notion surfaces: that, in devoting herself utterly to Vincent van Gogh, in selling him to the world, she was keeping alive that moment of her youth, and allowing the rest of us to feel it.

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