- BBC News World
The idea that Vincent van Gogh’s work was once not as precious as it is now is difficult to conceive.
But famously, that’s how it was: those iconic paintings only began to be recognized for the wonder they are when the Dutch painter had already lost more than hope.
And as the world learned to value them, they adorned the house of Vincent van Gogh’s grandfather, not the artist, but the great-grandson of his beloved brother Theo, and grew up among his paintings.
Share their first name but, to avoid confusion, use the middle name they both had.
“Imagine: if I said that I am Vincent van Gogh it would complicate my life, so it is better to call me Willem Van Gogh”, he tells the BBC, in one of the few interviews he has granted.
Willem is an advisor to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
“My grandfather was born in January 1890, and his uncle, Vincent, passed away that same year, on July 29. Unfortunately his father, Theo, died about five months later as well, so he grew up alone with his mother.”
But also grew up with himto work of his later famous uncle.
“He was surrounded by many paintings, I remember him very well, there were many in his house.”
Vincent van Gogh never knew the fame that his paintings would enjoy. He lived penniless, and gave many of what are today some of the world’s best-known works of art to his beloved younger brother, Willem’s grandfather.
“The two brothers, Vincent and Theo, were very, very close. Theo was an art dealer in Paris and supported his brother, who began to become an artist at the age of 27, by sending him money.
“In return, Vincent the sent half of the paintings and drawings he made to his brother Theo to show him what he was doing and also in the hope that Theo would sell some of his paintings. “
“But that never happened unfortunately, because Vincent was ahead of his time. He was a very innovative artist and people didn’t like his work so much when he was still alive.”
Vincent van Gogh died of self-inflicted gunshot wounds. And when tragically Theo himself died a few months later, the left his treasure of paintings to his young widow, Johanna and their young son.
Johanna dedicated her life to making Vincent Van Gogh valued as an artist.
“He was an extraordinary person, and I have a lot of respect for him, because imagine: you just got married, your husband dies and you are alone with your son and you need to find some income.
“She agreed with Theo that Vincent was a very important artist and devised a strategy to get Vincent recognized as a contemporary artist, gifting pieces to some of his friends – people we would call today ‘influencers‘- intellectuals, politicians, writers or artists “.
His strategy eventually succeeded.
Today those paintings have a place of honor in the great museums of the world and are among the most valuable works of art on Earth.
The same ones that hung on the walls of the house of Willem’s grandparents who, when he visited them, played with each other.
“‘Sunflowers’ hung over the sofa in the living room, and there was ‘The Almond Blossom’ and ‘The Harvest’ … they were part of the family.”
“I liked them since I was little, I think for the same reason that many people like Vincent’s art: because of the vibrant colors.
“It is very accessible. They are everyday subjects like a bedroom, which is the favorite painting of many children who visit our museum.”
Willem’s favorite is “The Almond Blossom”, with its delicate white flowers against the turquoise sky, which Vincent van Gogh painted for his grandfather just a few months before he died.
“I think that is one of the most beautiful paintings ever made, and I remember that it lit up the whole room with that beautiful turquoise color. “
A true jewel that, like the others that hung on the walls of his grandparents’ house, survived the hustle and bustle of daily life.
“Today they would be sold for millions of dollars, but we are talking about the 60s, and in that era another time: when they left the house, they did not lock the door.
“And ‘The Blossoming Almond Tree’, for example, was hanging in the children’s room while they were growing up, where my father and his two brothers had pillow fights. But it survived in pristine condition. It has never been restored and is in pristine condition. conditions on the walls of our museum in Amsterdam. “
Willem was 10 years old when realized that these paintings that were part of his childhood were famous.
It was in a hotel during a family vacation in France.
“In the bedroom we saw a reproduction of ‘Sunflowers’, the same painting that I knew so well from my grandparents’ living room.
“It was then that I thought: ‘Our relative must be very very famous, because he is in this country where people speak another language, the food tastes different, everything looks different.’ That was the moment I realized it.”
It was also around this time, in the 1960s, that his grandfather began to think about how to secure the future of paintings.
He and his mother, Johanna, had always been convinced that the collection should not be scrapped.
“There is no comparable collection of such an important artist: 200 paintings, 500 drawings and almost all of his letters had been kept together, and the privilege was too great for one person to have. “
“That is why he negotiated with the government to put the entire collection – because he also owned 200 paintings by Paul Gaugin, Georges Seurat, Toulouse Lautrec, contemporaries of Vincent – which was in the hands of the family in a Vincent van Gogh Foundation, for ensure that the collection would remain intact for all the next generations, forever.
“And in return, the government promised to build the Van Gogh Museum.”
Willem’s grandfather was known as “the engineer” because that was his profession and to distinguish him from his famous uncle, with whom he also shared the name.
And he got to work, helping to design this museum.
“He realized that the best way to display the pieces was on a more or less gray background, because that made the colors very strong. In addition, he learned in the US that after visiting the museum many people It made them want to paint, so he provided a study for them to do it.
“That is something my grandfather first introduced to the Van Gogh Museum.”
But how did Willem feel about having to give up those paintings that had been a part of his life for so long?
“I found it sad that all this happened. But when I spoke to my grandfather, he was very happy because he was going to make his dream come true of that everyone could see the paintings“.
The Van Gogh Museum opened its doors in June 1973.
Willem’s grandfather visited him every day until his death.
“Grandpa went to his office in the museum every day, and had lunch with the guards.
“He told me he was doing it because they knew everything: if the museum was going well, if there were details to improve …”.
The engineer Vincent Willem Van Gogh died in 1978.
The museum that was created thanks to him is today one of the most visited in the world.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.