How much is an artist worth? Is it the monetary value of their work? Van Gogh's trip through the night sky painted from the window of an asylum is estimated to be worth a whopping 100 million dollars, and the vibrant, infamous Sunflowers wassold in 1987 for a record auction price at the time of close to 40 million pounds! we often look at the price of things to find the value, but the truth of the value is the map of the life itself, curled lines like the Starry Night itself. It's not just the life of the artist, but the people around them. For Van Gogh, so many of those important people were women. The sad yet powerful stories surrounding Van Gogh run much deeper than his own personal tragedies and accomplishments, he is reflected by power and passion in the faces all around him. When I began delving deeper into Van Gogh's story, I was looking for the women. So often in history women are left out of these grandiose male stories, or studied as background props to a mans life. To my delight I discovered story after story of influential (in their own way), powerful women in his life- each of them unique. Like his passion for sunflowers, a rare flower to paint at the time, the women he surrounded himself with were similarly an unusual choice- standing tall and proud. It does seem Van Gogh and his brother were drawn to bold women. From Vincent's girlfriend Sien Hoornik, a single mother and sex worker who became his muse and his lover, strong enough to enter into a life of sex work and survive the loss of 2 children, Sien, although like Vincent she did eventually commit suicide. Another lover, Agostina Segatori, an art model with serious drive, who opened her own restaurant Le Tambourin in Paris to much success which was unusual for women to do alone in this era. The café on the Boulevard de Clichy in Paris was just around the corner from the home that Vincent lived in with his brother Theo. Van Gogh ate for free in exchange for portraits, and Agostina gave him his first art exhibit, all of this before she went bankrupt, lost it all and passed away. Losing everything is one of the hardest experiences a human can go through, one can only imagine how that would feel as a woman in the early 1900's, it seems possible she died from grief. Of all these stories, most interestingly is the story of Vincents arts rise itself.
How did Vincent become one of the most famous artists of all time after his death?
The answer is really one woman, Jo Van Gogh-Bonger, Vincent's sister in law. Vincent wrote frequently to his brother Theo during his life, and after Vincent died, his brother who had also dealt with serious health problems also died. Imagine Jo, alone with a new baby, Vincent Willem, widowed and in possession of hundreds of paintings and letters, surrounded by self portraits, trials of sunflowers and haunting stars. She was consumed by loneliness. Jo, a woman of no standing, no money and no training eventually went on to teach herself the business of art dealing. She poured her grief into Van Gogh's work and trusted in her heart that it would be loved by the world. It was not easy for Jo, she was rejected time and time again, art gallery owners called her annoying and crazy (can't we all relate), they laughed when she presented the letters between the brothers as a compelling reason to display what are now some of the most famous paintings in the world. She turned down offers from the wrong galleries and buyers and she joined the right social circles, building her expertise and plans to bring Vincent into the light. In the late 1800's artists were praised and judged on their technical talents, it was unheard of to connect the painter to their personal story. Jo changed all of this, as the letters would become part of Vincents art collection. A single letter went for 200,000 euro last year. Without Jo there would be no Van Gogh, and the fact that her story and her suffering went ignored for decades feels like we've been leaving out some of the best parts of Van Gogh's legacy. Wouldn't her story make a fantastic film?
In this collection, muse Jorji Zimmatore channels these powerful muses who were ahead of their time, sunflower women right there on the wall, like gilded frames holding Vincents tragic, unique story.
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