Van Gogh's family in his art

Memory of the Garden at Etten
Artist Vincent van Gogh
Year 1888
Medium Oil on canvas
Location The Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia (F496)
Main article: Vincent van Gogh

Van Gogh's family in his art is a group of works that Vincent van Gogh made for or about Van Gogh family members. In 1881 Vincent drew a portrait of his grandfather, also named Vincent van Gogh, and his sister Wil. While living in Nuenen, Vincent memorialized his father in Still Life with Bible following his death in 1885. There he also made many paintings and drawings in 1884 and 1885 of his parent's vicarage, its garden and the church. At the height of his career in Arles he made Portrait of the Artist's Mother, Memory of the Garden at Etten of his mother and sister and Novel Reader, which is thought to be of his sister, Wil.

While van Gogh was at the Saint-Paul Asylum, Saint-Remy, he made several paintings as gifts for his mother and sister, and the painting Almond Blossoms for his brother Theo and his wife Johanna to celebrate the birth of their son whom they named Vincent.

Vincent van Gogh (grandfather)

Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Vincent van Gogh, the artist's grandfather, 1881, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Vincent van Gogh's grandfather (born 1789) was also named Vincent van Gogh. According to the artist's first biographer, his sister-in-law Johanna van Gogh, the grandfather was a pastor, and the son of Johanna van der Vin of Malines and Johannes van Gogh. Johanna van Gogh writes that Johannes "was at first a gold-wire drawer like his father, but he later became a Bible teacher and a clerk in the Cloister Church at The Hague." She describes him as an intellectual, duty-bound man who was awarded prizes and testimonials for his distinguished work.[1] A family legacy, from his great-uncle—a sculptor and a lifelong bachelor—allowed Vincent van Gogh (the elder) to study divinity at the University of Leiden. After successfully completing his studies and having become established at the parsonage of Benschop, he married E. H. Vrydag in 1810.[1] They remained married until Elisabeth's death on 7 March 1857; the Reverend Vincent van Gogh lived until 1874.[2]

In July, 1881 Vincent (the younger) made Portrait of Artist's Grandfather (F876). The work was drawn in pencil and brown ink, with opaque white watercolor and a brown wash. The drawing is owned by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.[3]

Father and mother

Theodorus van Gogh

Still Life with Bible, 1885, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (F117)

Theodorus van Gogh was born February 8, 1822, one of eleven children and the only one of six brothers to become a pastor like his father. Theodorus graduated from Utrecht in 1849 after successfully completing his theology program, which allowed him to secure a position as pastor in Groot-Zundert, a village in the North Brabant region of the Netherlands. He was confirmed by his father, Vincent van Gogh, in Zundert on 1 April 1849.[4] Reverend Theodorus van Gogh was pastor of the Protestant Dutch Reformed Church, which adhered to Calvinist doctrine.[5] In May 1851 Theodorus married Anna Cornelia Carbentus, whose father was in the book business. According to Johanna van Gogh, Theodorus was a handsome man, "he was called the handsome parson by some, he had an amiable character and fine spiritual qualities."[6] Vincent van Gogh made a painting of his father's Dutch Authorized Bible in Still Life with Bible (F117) months after Theodorus' sudden death in March 1885. The Bible symbolizes his father's faith, which Vincent saw as mired in convention. He painted the page open to the passage of Isaiah 53. He placed Émile Zola's novel "La Joie de vivre" (English: The Joy of Living) in front of the Bible which to him likely symbolized worldliness. The burned out candle shows an extinguishment—perhaps both of the father's life and of Vincent's faith.[7]

Anna van Gogh

Portrait of Artist's Mother, October 1888, The Norton Simon Museum of Art, Pasadena, California (F477)

Anna Cornelia Carbentus was born September 10, 1819 at The Hague to Willem Carbentus, who was a royal bookbinder. Her younger sister Cornelia married Theodorus' brother, Vincent van Gogh, the art dealer, and her older sister married a clergyman named Stricker.[8] Anna became a devout and helpful clergyman's wife, helping her husband in the parish.[8] She enjoyed art and was artistically inclined, "filling notebooks with drawings of plants and flowers"[9] and studied painting with Hendrik van de Sande Bakhuyzen. She outlived her three grown sons and her husband, yet still retained "her energy and spirit and bore her sorrow with rare courage."[8]

Portrait of the Artist's Mother (Van Gogh) (F477) was based upon a black-and-white photograph of his mother. Vincent's mother appears to be a respectable middle class woman, attentive and proud, against a green background.[10]

Van Gogh painted Memory of the Garden at Etten (F496) to hang in his bedroom. He envisioned the older woman was his mother and the younger in a plaid shawl his sister Wil. To Wil he said he had "an impression of you like those in Dickens' novels." Wil stands behind her mother in the painting. Behind them is a woman bent over working the garden. Mother and daughter fill the foreground of the left picture frame, seemingly walking out of the scene.[11] In a letter to his sister he described the painting:

"The younger of the two ladies who are out for a walk is wearing a Scottish shawl with green and orange checks, and a red parasol. The old lady has a violet shawl, nearly black. But a bunch of dahlias, some of them citron yellow, the others pink and white mixed, are like an explosion of color on the somber figure. Behind them a few cedar shrubs and emerald-green cypresses. Behind the cypresses one sees a field of pale green and red cabbages, surrounded by a border of little white flowers. The sandy path is of a raw orange color; the foliage of the two beds of scarlet geraniums is very green. Finally, the interjacent plane, there is a maid-servant, dressed in blue, who is arranging a profusion of plants with white, pink, yellow and vermilion-red flowers."

"Here you are. I know this is hardly what one might call a likeness, but for me it renders the poetic character and the style of the garden as I feel it. All the same, let us suppose that the two ladies out for a walk are you and our mother; let us even suppose that there is not the least, absolutely not the least vulgar and fatuous resemblance - yet the deliberate choice of color, the somber violet with the blotch of violent citron yellow of the dahlias, suggests Mother's personality to me."

"The figure in the Scotch plaid with orange and green checks stands out against the somber green of the cypress, which contrast is further accentuated by the red parasol - this figure gives me an impression of you like those in Dickens's novels, a vaguely representative figure."[12]

As he rose to the height of his career, Vincent enjoyed passing on prized paintings to his family. "Great bouquets of flowers, violet-colored irises, great bouquets of roses," went to his mother.[13] Another example, "the most resolved and stylized of the three" paintings of women picking olives was made for his sister and mother.[14][15]


Theodorus and Anna van Gogh's family, including Vincent, Anna, Theo, Elizabeth, Wilhelmien and Cornelius

Anna and Theodorus were both devoted to the communities they served, ensuring their deeds spoke as resolutely as Theodorus' Sunday sermons.[16] Both mother and father believed that God always watched over them and encouraged their children to look for God's presence in nature, such as the shape of the clouds or in the many colors in the sunsets.[16]

Vincent said in 1889, "Whatever I think on other points, our father and mother were exemplary as married people."[17]

Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh was born on March 30, 1853, exactly one year after the stillborn delivery of Anna and Theodorus' first child who was named Vincent. As a child, he liked animals and flowers. In temperament, he was strong, energetic and strong-willed. Vincent enjoyed playing outdoors and made up games for his brothers and sisters, once rewarded with the most beautiful rose bush in the garden as his award. There were a few times that Vincent exhibited his artistic talent and upon receiving praise from his parents, he ruined the items. He attended the local school but his interaction with the peasant boys was making him tough. As the family grew, a governess was brought in to tutor the children at the vicarage.[8]

At the age of eleven Vincent was sent away for schooling to a nearby boarding school which led to his lifelong feelings of being an exile.[9] As Van Gogh entered adulthood the divide widened. After failing as an art dealer and in the ministry, he decided to become an artist. The more his family members suggested possible alternative vocations the greater the gulf between Vincent and his family. Further, Vincent's manner of dress, behavior and unusual love life was unsettling and embarrassing to the family.[18] By 1881 Vincent had developed his personal view of the world and religion which was very different from his parents', finding organized religion too constrictive. He wrote to his brother, Theo, "I find Father and Mother's sermons and ideas about God, people, morality and virtue a lot of stuff and nonsense."[19]

Theo van Gogh

Theo van Gogh (art dealer) was born in Groot Zundert on May 1, 1857, four years after his brother Vincent.[20] He was more tender, kind and delicately built but shared his older brother's reddish fair complexion and light blue eyes.[8] Theo and Vincent began writing letters to one another in 1872 and continued for 18 years, with 668 letters from Vincent to Theo, many of them with sketches. Theo became Vincent's key source of emotional and financial support as he pursued his artistic development. Theo, who managed an art gallery in Paris and was knowledgeable of trends in modern art, offered Vincent advice. Theo married Johanna Bonger and had a son, whom they named Vincent. Theo died six months after Vincent’s death on January 25, 1891.[20]

The Van Gogh Museum attributes a painting generally considered a self-portrait to actually be a portrayal of his brother, Theo. In Portrait of Theo van Gogh, (F294), the museum says that the painting was made "to experiment with color, as we can see in the effect of the yellow hat against the blue background, and the range of colors in the jacket, bow-tie and background."[21] Albert J. Lubin, author of "Stranger on the Earth: A Psychological Biography of Vincent van Gogh" claims that Vincent made no portraits of his brother.[22]

Next to this painting is one of Vincent's self-portraits (F296), also made in 1887.

Vincent made Almond Blossoms for Theo and his wife to celebrate the birth of their son, symbolizing new life in the flowers of the almond tree.[23] Vincent wrote to his mother of the birth of Theo and Jo's baby,

"How glad I was when the news came... I should have greatly preferred him to call the boy after Father, of whom I have been thinking so much these days, instead of after me; but seeing it has now been done, I started right away to make a picture for him, to hang in their bedroom, big branches of white almond blossom against a blue sky."[24]

The bright color is reflective of the paintings made in Arles and the transformational work Vincent had on the still life genre.[25]

Wil van Gogh

Main article: Wil van Gogh

Wil, short for Wilhelmein, was the youngest of Vincent's sisters, born in 1862. She lived with her parents, and after her father died, stayed on with her mother. At times she was a governess, private nurse, social worker and religion teacher. She longed to be a writer and was enthusiastic to hear of news about Paris, its art and cultural happenings. Van Gogh and Wil wrote to each other about literature and modern art in much the same way he did with his brother, Émile Bernard and Paul Gauguin.[26]

Novel Reader is evocative of Vincent's sister.[11] He describes it in a letter to Wil, "'Une Liseuse de Romans', the luxuriant hair very black, a green bodice, the sleeves the color of wine lees, the skirt black, the background all yellow, bookshelves with books. She is holding a yellow book in her hands."[12] The painting was made immediately after Vincent completed a "fantasy" painting of his mother and Wil, Memory of the Garden at Etten.[11]

Vincent made a drawing of his sister, "Portrait of Willemina Jacoba ('Willemien') van Gogh" (F849) in July 1881 with pencil and charcoal. It is owned by the Kroller-Muller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands.[27] The work is also said to be a "possible" portrait of Wil.[28]

In 1888 he gave two paintings to Wil for her birthday. One was Blossoming Almond Branch in a Glass with a Book, which he described to her in a letter as "a little study of a book for you." The second, Still Life with French Novels and a Rose, "on a somewhat larger scale, a flower, with a lot of books with pink, green and bright red bindings - they were my set of seven Parisian novels."[29]

During the summer of 1889, honoring his sister Wil's request, Vincent made several smaller versions of Wheat Field with Cypresses.[30]

Anna, Elizabeth and Cornelius

Vincent did not have a close relationship with Elizabeth or Cornelius his youngest brother.

Anna lived with Vincent in London for a period in 1874-5. Their initially warm relationship became strained; in April 1875, Anna wrote about Vincent's behaviour to Theo: "I believe that he has illusions about people and judges people before he knows them, and then when he finds out what they're really like and they don't live up to the opinion he formed of them prematurely, he's so disappointed that he throws them away like a bouquet of wilted flowers, without looking to see whether or not there are some among those wilted flowers which, when handled with care, are not quite rubbish yet."[31] She married Joan Marius van Houten in August 1878. Vincent attended the ceremonies, but relations with his sister remained cool; Anna complained about his aloofness and characterized him as a "wooden lion"[32] After their father's death in 1885 the two became estranged.

Anton Mauve

Main article: Anton Mauve

Anton Mauve was married to Vincent's cousin Ariëtte (Jet) Sophia Jeannette Carbentus[33] and was a major influence on the artist. He is mentioned directly in 152 of Vincent's surviving letters. Vincent spent three weeks at Mauve's studio at the end of 1881 and during that time he made his first experiments in painting under Mauve's tutelage, first in oils and then early the next year in watercolour (previously he had concentrated on drawing). Mauve continued to encourage him and lent him money to rent and furnish a studio[34] but later grew cold towards him and did not return a number of letters.[35]

In a letter to his brother Theo dated 7 May 1882,[36] Vincent describes "a very regrettable conversation" in which Mauve told him their association was "over and done with" adding by way of explanation that Van Gogh had a vicious character. Vincent continued his letter by expressing his sorrow and then defiantly launches into a defense of his relationship with Clasina (Sien) Maria Hoornik, a pregnant prostitute he had befriended.

Vicarage and church

Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen, 1884, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (F25)

In 1882 Vincent's father became pastor in Nuenen situated in the North Brabant province of the Netherlands. Having been in Drenthe for several months, Vincent came to live with his parents in December 1883 and stayed there until May 1885. The laundry room at the back of the house was turned into a studio for him. Theo's father wrote to him: "We do not think it’s really suitable, but we have had a proper stove installed... I wanted to put in a large window as well, but he prefers not to have one."[37]

A simple two-story stone building, the parsonage sat on the main street of Nuenen. The second story provided Vincent beautiful views, including a church tower in the distance. The laundry room became his studio. Vincent recorded the changing seasons in his paintings of the garden, which was enclosed by a high stone wall and included a duck pond with a boat dock, paths and hedges, flower and vegetable garden plots and an orchard.[38]

Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen (F25) was made early 1884 for his parents, his father the pastor of the church since 1882. Vincent's mother, Anna van Gogh, was healing from a broken thighbone.[39] Vincent wrote to his brother, "Taking her difficult situation into consideration, I am glad to say Mother's spirits are very even and bright. And she is amused by trifles. The other day I painted for her a little church with the hedge and the trees." The letter included a sketch with one person in front of the church,[40] a peasant with a spade. X-rays of the painting indicate that Vincent later added church members and autumn leaves to the previously bare trees, which made the work more colorful. The changes were not likely made before the fall of 1885. Vincent may have added the woman in mourning and congregation members for his mother as a memorial for his father's death. The painting was stolen from the Van Gogh Museum on December 7, 2002.[39] The painting was recovered in Naples, Italy in September 2016.[41]

The Rectory Garden in Nuenen in the Snow (F194) depicts a worker shoveling a path in the snow of the Vincent's garden. The winter scene of bare-branched trees and gloomy sky hints of the preceding fall by a few remaining red leaves. Vincent wrote to Theo: "The life and death of peasants remain forever the same, withering regularly, like the grass and flowers growing in that churchyard." The Norton Simon Museum reports that X-ray of the painting shows that underneath this painting is a painting of a woman at her spinning wheel.[42]



  1. 1 2 Johanna Gesina van Gogh - Bonger, Vincent's sister in law (2011). "Memoir of Vincent van Gogh". Van Gogh Paintings. Van Gogh Gallery. Retrieved 2011-05-17.
  2. Hulsker, 6
  3. "Portrait of Vincent van Gogh, the Artist's Grandfather". Van Gogh Paintings. Van Gogh Gallery. 2011. Retrieved 2011-05-17.
  4. Hulsker, 6, 8
  5. "Dutch Reformed Church". Permanent Collection. Van Gogh Museum. 2005–2011. Retrieved 2011-05-15.
  6. qtd in Hulsker, 6
  7. "Symbolism". Permanent Collection. Van Gogh Museum. 2005–2011. Retrieved 2011-05-15' See more to tell
  8. 1 2 3 4 5 Johanna Gesina van Gogh - Bonger, Vincent's sister in law (2011). "Memoir of Vincent van Gogh, page 2". Van Gogh Paintings. Van Gogh Gallery. Retrieved 2011-05-17.
  9. 1 2 Greenberg, J; Jordan, S (2001). Vincent Van Gogh: Portrait of an Artist. New York: Delcorte Press. p. PT10. ISBN 978-0-307-54874-0.
  10. "Portrait of the Artist's Mother, October 1888". Collection. Norton Simon Museum of Art. 2002–2011. Retrieved 2011-05-11.
  11. 1 2 3 Zemel, C (1997). Van Gogh's Progress: Utopia, Modernity, and Late-Nineteenth-Century Art. Berkeley: University of California Press. p. 128. ISBN 0-520-08849-2.
  12. 1 2 Harrison, R, ed. (2011). "Vincent van Gogh. Letter to Wilhelmina van Gogh. Written c. 16 November 1888 in Arles.". Van Gogh Letters. WebExhibits. Retrieved 2011-05-17.
  13. Mancoff, D (1999). Van Gogh: Fields and Flowers. San Francisco: Chronicle Books. pp. 23, 28. ISBN 0-8118-2569-8.
  14. "Women Picking Olives". Collection. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2000–2011. Retrieved March 25, 2011.
  15. Leeuw, R (1997) [1996]. van Crimpen, H; Berends-Albert, M, eds. The Letters of Vincent van Gogh. London and other locations: Penguin Books.
  16. 1 2 Silverman, D (2000). Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Search for Sacred Art. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. pp. 147–148. ISBN 0-374-28243-9.
  17. Harrison, R, ed. (2011). "Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, Arles, 22 or 23 January 1889". Van Gogh Letters. WebExhibits. Retrieved 2011-05-16.
  18. Gayford, M (2008) [2006]. The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Provence. Mariner Books. pp. 124–127. ISBN 978-0-618-99058-0.
  19. Harrison, R, ed. (2011). "Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, Etten, c. 21 December 1881". Van Gogh Letters. WebExhibits. Retrieved 2011-05-11.
  20. 1 2 Crispino, E (2008). Van Gogh. Minneapolis: The Oliver Press. p. 20.
  21. 1 2 "Portrait of Theo van Gogh, 1887". Permanent Collection. Van Gogh Museum. 2005–2011. Retrieved 2011-05-17.
  22. Lubin, A (1996) [1972]. Stranger on the Earth: A Psychological Biography of Vincent van Gogh. New York: De Capo Press. p. 236. ISBN 0-306-80726-2.
  23. "Almond Blossom, 1890". Permanent Collection. Van Gogh Museum. 2005–2011. Retrieved April 23, 2011.
  24. Harrison, R, ed. (2011). "Vincent van Gogh. Letter to His Mother. Written c. 20 February 1890 in Saint-Rémy.". Van Gogh Letters. WebExhibits. Retrieved 2011-04-23.
  25. Ross, B (208). Venturing Upon Dizzy Heights: Lectures and Essays on Philosophy, Literature and the Arts. New York: Peter Lang Publishing. p. 52.
  26. Zemel, C (1997). Van Gogh's Progress: Utopia, Modernity, and Late-Nineteenth-Century Art. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 125–126. ISBN 0-520-08849-2.
  27. "Portrait of Willemina Jacoba ('Willemien') van Gogh". Collection. Kroller-Muller Museum. Retrieved 2011-05-17.
  28. "Portrait possibly of Willemien van Gogh". Van Gogh Paintings. Van Gogh Gallery. 2011. Retrieved 2011-05-17.
  29. Harrison, R, ed. (2011). "Vincent van Gogh. Letter to Wilhelmina van Gogh. Written 30 March 1888 in Arles.". Van Gogh Letters. WebExhibits. Retrieved 2011-05-17.
  30. Ronald Pickvance, Van Gogh In Saint-Remy and Auvers. 132-133. Exhibition catalog. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1986. ISBN 0-87099-477-8
  31. Letter 33 Notes
  32. Letter 147 Notes
  33. Family tree of Vincent Van Gogh
  34. "Letter 196". Vincent van Gogh. The Letters. Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum.
  35. Tralbaut (1981), 96–103
  36. "Letter 224". Vincent van Gogh. The Letters. Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum.
  37. "The Vicarage at Nuenen, 1885". Permanent Collection. Van Gogh Museum. 2005–2011. Retrieved 2011-05-15.
  38. Fell, D (2005) [2004]. Van Gogh's Women: Vincent's Love Affairs and Journey Into Madness. New York: Carroll and Graf Publishers. p. 56. ISBN 0-7432-0233-3.
  39. 1 2 "Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen, 1884". Permanent Collection. Van Gogh Museum. 2005–2011. Retrieved 2011-05-15.
  40. "Vincent van Gogh. Letter to Theo van Gogh. Written c. 24 January 1884 in Nuenen.". Van Gogh Paintings. Van Gogh Gallery. 2011. Retrieved 2011-05-17.
  41. "Twee gestolen schilderijen Van Gogh na veertien jaar teruggevonden" (in Dutch), de Volkskrant, 2016. Retrieved 30 September 2016.
  42. "Winter (The Vicarage Garden under Snow)". Collections. Norton Simon Museum. 2002–2011. Retrieved May 19, 2011.


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