"Ever Yours, Vincent": Van Gogh’s Relationships

A new exhibition launches this September at Het Noordbrabants Museum in Den Bosch with a focus on Van Gogh’s close relationships, including a series of unsuccessful romances

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait, Summer 1887, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation) 

Known for his passionate intensities and stormy mental state, Vincent van Gogh was nonetheless capable of showing great tenderness. “How are your pains? Don’t forget to give me news about them,” he writes in a letter to his brother, Theo, in October 1888. He often signed off his missives to Theo with “handshakes in thought” and the phrase, “Ever yours, Vincent.”

Van Gogh’s Inner Circle: Friends, Family, Models, which opens on September 21st of this year at the Het Noordbrabants Museum in Den Bosch, takes account of Vincent the intimate, examining his relationships with Theo, his family, and several potential romantic partners in a series of ultimately unrequited love affairs.

Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Theo, Summer 1887, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam 

“Never before has this subject been discussed in such detail,” the gallery claims in its press release.

“With this exhibition, the museum challenges the accepted image of the tormented, solitary artist and shows that, despite his often difficult relationships, Van Gogh was highly valued by his friends and family as a person and as an artist. Van Gogh’s Inner Circle is curated by Sjraar van Heugten, former Head of Collections at the Van Gogh Museum and independent curator.”

The relationship between Vincent and his brother is picked out for special attention. In 1887, Theo described the painter in a letter to their sister, Willemien: “It's as if there are two people in him, the one marvelously gifted, sensitive and gentle, and the other self-loving and unfeeling.”

Vincent Van Gogh, L’Arlésienne, February 1890, Nazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Rome. By permission of Ministero per I Beni e delle Attività Culturali 

Included in the exhibition is a portrait of Theo, alongside a self-portrait. Van Gogh’s intense self-examinations are widely known, and have become some of the most famous self-portraits in existence. It’s a fascinating new perspective, however, that’s afforded by seeing this 1887 example alongside the portrait of his brother from the same year.

Vincent van Gogh, Madame Roulin Rocking the Cradle, 1889, The Art Institute of Chicago

Vincent paints his own brow arched in the middle and drooping at the sides, in an attitude of self-doubt. He’s trying to avoid our eye, looking meek, appealing somewhere within for some love in which he hardly dares place his faith. His shoulders are angled obliquely to the frame, as if he can’t wait to turn away. Theo, by contrast, meets us head-on, shoulders squared, brow firm, blue eyes staring with intent and surety. Vincent affords his brother a vigor he dare not find in himself. It’s a telling moment in a show that’s at times almost unbearably intimate.

In October 1887, Vincent himself wrote to Willemien, “For my part, I still continually have the most impossible and highly unsuitable love affairs from which, as a rule, I emerge only with shame and disgrace.”

Vincent van Gogh, Sien Sitting Near the Stove, March-April 1882, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo 

Researchers believe that Vincent made marriage proposals to three women over nine years, all of which were rejected. Caroline Haanebeek turned him down in 1872, Eugénie Loyer a year later, and finally Kee Vos-Stricker in 1881.

Vincent wanted to start a family, and the failure of this to materialize was one of the chief torments of his life. After 1882 he developed a close relationship with the sex-worker, Sien Hoornik, whom he invited to live with him in the Hague. She and her child (she was also pregnant) lived with Vincent for some time, and he painted her several times, but this relationship too was doomed.

Vincent van Gogh, Sorrowing Old Man (‘At Eternity’s Gate’), May 1890, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo 

The paintings and artefacts which will be presented here in the Brabant (the area of the Netherlands in which Van Gogh was born) provide insight into the turmoil and the tenderness of the painter’s life. Willing to give himself wholly to his relationships, but thwarted, he instead found solace predominantly in his work, in his self-examination. But what this exhibition will perhaps prove is that, after his tragic death, he has achieved the kind of affection he always craved He is and will remain one of the most beloved artists in history. Now, he’s ever ours.

Van Gogh’s Inner Circle: Friends, Family, Models runs from September 21st 2019 to January 12th 2020 at Het Noordbrabants Museum, Den Bosch, Netherlands.

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