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Monday, January 30, 2023

Review: Mrs Van Gogh

Title: Mrs Van Gogh
Author: Caroline Cauchi

Publisher: 30th January 2023 by HarperCollins UK, One More Chapter

Pages: 484 pages

Genre: historical fiction

My Rating: 5 crowns


Who tells her story?

In 1890, Vincent Van Gogh dies penniless, unknown, a man tortured by his own mind.

Eleven years later his work is exhibited in Paris and his unparalleled talent finally recognised. The tireless efforts of one woman gave the world one of its greatest creative minds.

But twenty-eight year old Johanna Van Gogh-Bonger, Vincent’s sister-in-law and the keeper of his immense collection of paintings, sketches and letters, has, until now, been written out of history. This beautiful, moving novel finally gives this extraordinary woman a voice…

My Thoughts

‘I’m going to bring Vincent van Gogh’s art to the world. I’ll let others see his genius.’

Most of us know, of course, of Vincent Van Gogh. Many of us know that his work did not become famous until after his death. Then why - I ask myself - have I never asked the question: who was responsible for presenting his art to the world? This book answers all that and more in such a way that will stay with me … probably for my lifetime. 

‘If it takes until my very last breath, one day, every single artist, art lover and art critic in the world will know the name Vincent van Gogh.’ He laughs. ‘You’re as mad as the earless painter.’

I cannot recommend this book highly enough to anyone who is even slightly intrigued by a fictional narrative on this topic. In the words of the author herself: “.. shocked and bewildered that despite her key role in the growth of Vincent’s posthumous fame, Johanna’s story had been all but ignored … I’m neither a historian nor a biographer, I had little choice - and much pleasure - in writing an imaginative reconstruction of a brief marriage and the story of how a young widow changed art history … this novel offers a creative account of the remarkable woman who became “the guardian of Vincent van Gogh’s legacy.”

‘He’s one of the most progressive painters alive. He has to keep painting,’ he says. ‘He forces us to surrender conventional ideas when viewing his art. But Jo …  Can I hope that one day he’ll be understood?’

Johanna was only married to Theo for a short two and a half years - mind blowing in the big scheme of things. To consider that in such a short time she met and became engaged to Theo, witnessed Vincent’s mental collapse, married, had a child, witnessed Vincent’s death then, sadly, Theo’s mental collapse and death. ‘A former schoolteacher who stepped into two and a half years of madness, love and grief. After that, aged only twenty-eight, some might have turned their back on the Van Gogh name. But nevertheless, Mrs Van Gogh-Bonger persisted. She spread him over the world, selling at least 195 paintings and 55 drawings by Van Gogh, including Sunflowers to London’s National Gallery of British Art in 1924, the year before she died.”

‘I’m at a loss for words. I’ve stepped into a world where madness and art seem to hold hands to dance. I’m not sure I know how to exist here.’

In light of this, Caroline has penned such an incredible story. It’s raw, it’s heartbreaking but it’s filled with resilience and fortitude that moved me beyond measure. It’s a massive undertaking and Caroline does it with such poise and panache that it truly is one of the most remarkable fictional narratives I have read. I don’t even have the space to go into the ease of her writing, the depth of her research and portrayal of artists of the era or the days in Paris (love the weekly Eiffel Tower photo) and especially, the nod to the role of women in the era. Just do yourself a favour and go read this book! You won’t be disappointed - the tale of such a remarkable woman who became the caretaker of the Van Gogh legacy.

‘For in the routine of daily life there is so little time to reflect, and sometimes days go by when I don’t actually live, but let life happen to me, and that’s terrible. I would think it dreadful to have to say at the end of my life: “I’ve actually lived for nothing, I have achieved nothing great or noble”…’ Johanna Bonger, aged seventeen (March 26, 1880)’

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

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