Vincent van Gogh remained penniless throughout his tragic life, which ended in suicide shortly after a stay in a mental asylum. Yet two decades later, paintings he had given to his sister were sold to pay for her stay in a psychiatric hospital, commanding such high prices that the proceeds funded years of treatment, according to letters published in a new book.
Willemien, the youngest of Van Gogh’s three sisters, shared his love of art and literature and, like him, struggled with her mental health. While Van Gogh was committed to an asylum after cutting off part of his ear and giving it to a prostitute in a fit of madness, his sister was institutionalised for almost 40 years until her death in 1941.
In 1909, the oldest sister, Anna, wrote of selling a picture that he had given Willemien, enabling her to pay for medical costs: “I remember when Wil got the painting from Vincent, but what a figure! Who would have thought that Vincent would contribute to Wil’s upkeep in this way?”
Anna, who had worked as a teacher’s assistant in England, was writing to Jo Bonger, wife of Van Gogh’s brother, Theo, who was an art dealer and always believed in Vincent’s talent when others did not.
After 1905, when a Van Gogh exhibition was staged at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, his paintings were enjoying some real success.
In the 1909 letter, Anna wrote of selling paintings: “Theo has always claimed it would happen, but what an unforeseen turn of events, such surprising outcomes.”
She also wrote of Willemien’s empty existence in the asylum: “The only book she sometimes reads is Aurora Leigh [by Elizabeth Barrett Browning] and the rest of times she just sits and sews for the nurses… In the morning, she sits on the porch feeding the birds, but if a nurse then tries to go for a little walk in the garden with her, she refuses.”
Anna wrote of buying her “soft leather slippers” to comfort her: “I try all sorts of things and I keep hoping something will get through to her.” But her sister’s condition worsened over the years.
This is one of hundreds of unpublished letters written by the sisters, their friends and family members which will feature in a book called The Van Gogh Sisters, giving insights into the tragedy and turmoil of their lives.
Dutch art historian Willem-Jan Verlinden, author of the book to be published by Thames & Hudson in April, following its Dutch edition, said: “The letters are only in Dutch, so they’ve never been available… and not in English.
“Van Gogh’s sisters had to sell his paintings for their livelihood. As he became more and more famous and the prices for his paintings went up, he was, in a way, providing for his sisters, even long after he had passed on.”
The letters are held in the archives of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Hans Luijten, its senior researcher and author of a forthcoming biography, All for Vincent, said: “These are a real goldmine, with wonderful observations. I want to make a survey of what the family members say about Vincent. They’re so interesting. One by one, we intend to publish them in the near future.”
Other material includes the correspondence of Willemien’s friend, Margaretha Meijboom, whose own brother had a history of mental health problems. When news came through that Van Gogh had cut off his ear and ended up in an asylum, she comforted a devastated Willemien in a letter, dated 1888: “That poor fellow, how dreadful, so ill – I mean, in that way – and on top of it, so far away… I understand your feelings perfectly… Going to a sanatorium sounds harsh, but did you know that any expert would recommend not postponing it for too long? Patients suffer less because they get the right treatment.”
She continued: “What a blessing he was not alone, but had help. Who shall let you know what is happening now? Paul [Gauguin], or the doctor at the asylum?”
On 27 July 1890, Van Gogh shot himself in the chest with a pistol. Theo rushed from Paris to Auvers and was there when his brother died of his injuries on 29 July.
Willemien too ended up in an asylum in 1902. Verlinden wonders whether her mental problems would have been tackled today with medication: “At that time, it meant that you had to be sent to an asylum. She stayed there half her life. That’s the sad thing. But the beautiful thing is she had 17 paintings that Vincent made for her and her mother and the sale was used to pay for her.”