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Art: Vincent van Gogh.
“Memory of the Garden at Etten” (1888), oil on canvas, State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg.

From the quasi-animated film Loving Vincent to revelations in old postcards, Vincent van Gogh has been making a lot of headlines in the last few years. I’ve covered a few of the stories myself: for example here, here, and here.

Now there’s a book aiming to shine a light on the artist’s three sisters. Eva Recinos reviewed it for Hyperallergic.

“We might sometimes forget that major artists have had to exist as people, too, with all the trials and tribulations that might come before they reach fame. Take, for example, family dynamics. And in the van Gogh family, there were many of them. 

“Vincent van Gogh’s three sisters — Willemien (Wil), Elisabeth (Lies), and Anna van Gogh — are highlighted in the historical biography The Van Gogh Sisters by Willem-Jan Verlinden (Thames & Hudson). The book was originally published in Dutch in 2016; the English version, translated by Yvette Rosenberg and Brendan Monaghan, includes previously unpublished letters, largely the result of research completed after the Dutch version was first released.

“Through letters between the siblings, we read that Lies was frustrated that women didn’t have more professional options that were socially acceptable. We learn about how Wil often copied Vincent’s drawings and was his favorite model, and that the two wrote to each other about art and literature and inquired about one another’s mental health. …

“But about 100 pages in, there’s still a lot of focus on Vincent and his two brothers, Theodorus (Theo) and Cornelis (Cor) van Gogh, as well as their father. … While we do get more insight into the sisters’ lives, quite a few pages are dedicated to Vincent.

“The reproductions of art are largely his works. That’s clearly because there’s more of his art to share, yet it takes the reader out of the narrative about the sisters. (The book does include a watercolor piece by his mother, Anna Carbentus, also known as Moe van Gogh. She was an avid gardener and created pieces to capture the beauty of nature.) …

“We learn that Wil has an interest in making her own art and writing. She explored flower arranging and wrote an article for the journal ‘The Dutch Lily’ that was ‘an unconventional guide to flower arranging,’ Verlinden writes (one line speaks of her love for ‘more loosely arranged flowers’). Vincent, for his part, wrote to Theo that maybe Wil could marry an artist; as much as he did love discussing the arts with her, it can be deduced that he didn’t exactly see her being a professional artist herself.

“She eventually focused her efforts on the National Exhibition of Women’s Labour, which was organized to shed light on women’s contributions to the economy, particularly through the production of goods. But Wil would also end up struggling with mental health. She spent more than three decades of her life at a psychiatric institution, where she passed away.

“Lies wrote poetry and would go on to publish multiple books — including one centered on the life and work of Vincent. There’s also a fourth sister, of sorts, in the text. Johanna Gezina Bonger (Jo), Vincent’s sister-in-law, who helped organize exhibitions of his work after he died in 1890.  

“Ultimately, if you approach the book as a fan of Vincent van Gogh’s work, it will feel like a deeper dive into his place within the family, such as his struggles to prove himself as an artist to his parents and his complicated relationship with his sisters — an argument with Anna likely drove him from the family home in 1885 and he was disappointed that his other sisters, especially Wil, didn’t come to his defense. … But as with any under-highlighted history, we can only hope future research will tell us even more.”

The Van Gogh Sisters, by Willem-Jan Verlinden (2021), is published by Thames & Hudson and is available at Bookshop.org.

More at Hyperallergic, here.

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