Vincent van Gogh and Theo’s Role in His Life and Legacy

Vincent van Gogh - National Gallery of Art


Vincent van Gogh. His name always stirs something within me. I think of his iconic masterpieces like The Starry Night, Sunflowers, and The Potato Eaters. His vivid hues, daring brushstrokes, and innovative techniques reshaped the art world. But there’s more to his story than his paintings. There’s a brotherly bond that went beyond mere kinship – a bond that touched me profoundly.

When I always hear Vincent van Gogh, I think of his paintings that have changed the course of art history. But did you know that there was another person who played a huge role in his life? Someone who stood by him through thick and thin, lighting up his world even in its darkest moments. That someone was his younger brother, Theo. It’s Theo’s unwavering support that resonates with me the most. Vincent faced many challenges in his life, but his passion for his craft never wavered, thanks to the love he received from Theo. As I explore their story, I admire Vincent’s resilience in the face of adversity and Theo’s constant presence by his side.

The Struggles and Challenges

Vincent was born in the quiet town of Zundert, the Netherlands, on March 30, 1853. He was the eldest son of Theodorus van Gogh and Anna Cornelia Carbentus. Among the siblings, Vincent and Theo had a special and lasting connection, united by their love for nature, literature, and art. They even looked alike, with red hair and blue eyes. An old photo, long thought to show Vincent’s face, actually turned out to be Theo.

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait, oil on board, 1887
Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait, oil on board, 1887

Vincent’s artistic legacy is legendary, marked by his bold strokes, intense emotion, and fearless experimentation. He painted landscapes, portraits, still lifes – everything that captured his inner world. But Vincent’s path was not easy. He struggled with mental illness, epilepsy, and depression. His relationship with fellow artist Paul Gauguin was tense, leading to a shocking incident where Vincent cut off part of his own ear.

The Brotherly Support from Theo

Born on May 1, 1857, Theo van Gogh grew up to be an influential art dealer, promoting artists like Monet, Cézanne, and Degas through his work with Goupil & Cie. His Parisian home was filled with their artwork, proudly displayed for everyone to see.

Theo van Gogh May 1878
Theo van Gogh May 1878

But he didn’t just care about other artists’ work. He saw something in Vincent that others might have missed. In 1880, when Vincent was lost and unsure about his future, it was Theo’s words that inspired him: “You know well enough that I have always thought that if you wanted to become an artist you would have to work hard at it; but I did not doubt for a moment that you could succeed.” He also supported Vincent financially, giving him monthly allowances and painting supplies. Without this brotherly help, Vincent’s collection of over 2,000 works might never have existed.

The brothers’ relationship was more than just family. They wrote over 600 letters to each other during their lives. They shared their deepest feelings, artistic thoughts, family matters, and observations about the world around them. Whenever they could, they met up, offering comfort and friendship.

A letter from Vincent Van Gogh to his brother Theo Van Gogh, Nuenen, Thursday, 9 April 1885. The letter includes a sketch of his first masterpiece The Potato Eaters
A letter from Vincent Van Gogh to his brother Theo Van Gogh, Nuenen, Thursday, 9 April 1885. The letter includes a sketch of his first masterpiece The Potato Eaters

Theo was Vincent’s rock during his darkest times. When Vincent hurt himself badly, Theo was there, rushing to his side. He arranged for Vincent to stay at the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, where Vincent kept on creating despite his struggles. Theo defended Vincent’s work from the skepticism and ridicule it sometimes faced. In 1890, he arranged for Vincent’s first solo exhibition in Paris, a gathering attended by famous artists.

Eternal Farewell

Sadly, fate had other plans: both brothers died. In the fields near Auvers-sur-Oise, Vincent’s life ended suddenly, a gunshot ringing out. We may never know if it was by his own hand or another’s. What we do know is that Vincent’s last moments were in Theo’s arms. Theo, heartbroken, echoed Vincent’s words of eternal sadness: “La tristesse durera toujours” – the sorrow will last forever.

Theo’s own story was one of love and despair. He had syphilis, which caused him dementia and other physical problems. He also had kidney and heart issues that made him worse, eventually leading to his death on January 25, 1891. In the Netherlands, he was buried next to his parents. Theo’s precious collection of Vincent’s works found a new home with his wife Jo, who carried on their legacy. In 1914, Theo was moved to be next to Vincent again.

The brothers Vincent and Theo van Gogh were inseparable in life and death. They shared a bond that transcended art and blood. They inspired each other, supported each other, and loved each other. Their story is a testament to the power of brotherhood and the beauty of the human spirit.

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