Uncovering the Van Gogh Sisters

Sisters Anna, Elisabeth, and Willemien. Almond Blossom by Vincent van Gogh.

Wikipedia
caption
Long overlooked, the sisters—Anna, Elisabeth (Lies), and Willemien (Wil)—are now the subjects of a book, The Van Gogh Sisters by Van Gogh scholar Willem-Jan Verlinden.

Long overlooked, the sisters—Anna, Elisabeth (Lies), and Willemien (Wil)—are now the subjects of a book, The Van Gogh Sisters by Van Gogh scholar Willem-Jan Verlinden.

Bookcover 'The Van Gogh Sisters' by Willem-Jan Verlinden, Thames & Hudson, London-New York 2021.

Bookcover 'The Van Gogh Sisters' by Willem-Jan Verlinden, Thames &
Hudson, London-New York 2021.

The Van Gogh Sisters book cover.

“You have all different possibilities, following different lines, but what I’d wanted to do is tell the unknown story and by doing so, paint the larger picture of the family.”

Willem-Jan Verlinden

Biographical texts about Vincent van Gogh tend to stress the relationship between Vincent and his brother, Theo. Their correspondence, which Theo kept filed in a large armoire, details the highs and lows of their relationship—and, more broadly, illuminates a very deep familial bond. The loving salutations and valedictions that bookended their letters—“my dear Theo,” “your loving brother, Vincent,”—have often been quoted as evidence of a seemingly singular attachment. Although their relationship has been rightfully emphasized, their brotherly bond has overshadowed the fact that Vincent also had three sisters and another brother. His sisters, like Theo, shaped his worldview, were important correspondents, and, like all siblings, were sources of tension for the artist.

Long overlooked, the sisters—Anna, Elisabeth (Lies), and Willemien (Wil)—are now the subjects of a book, The Van Gogh Sisters by Van Gogh scholar Willem-Jan Verlinden. “You lift one thing, and then other things come up,” explains Verlinden over Zoom. Verlinden first began looking into the sisters when he was researching his 2013 book focused on Van Gogh’s London years. “I said to myself, ‘if the sisters are only half as well documented as Vincent is, then there should be a book in there,’” he recalls. Verlinden decided to spend six weeks investigating the sisters, which turned into three, then four years. “That was the book,” he says, “You have all different possibilities, following different lines, but what I'd wanted to do is tell the unknown story and by doing so, paint the larger picture of the family.”

As was Verlinden’s ambition, The Van Gogh Sisters traces the lives of the different Van Gogh children, set within the larger familial dynamics and against the backdrop of a changing nineteenth-century Europe. Rather than focusing on the siblings individually, Verlinden demonstrates the ways in which their lives were entwined. The siblings, in addition to supporting and living with each other at home and abroad, also saw themselves in relation to each other. While Lies was away at boarding school, she wrote in a letter, “we are all so of one mind, except perhaps for Vincent.”

For context, Dorus van Gogh, Vincent’s father, was a minister and like his wife, Anna (later called Moe) came from an upper-middle-class family. As his employment changed, the family was relocated to parsonages throughout the Netherlands—and a persistent issue was the perception of the family to the villages where they lived. Verlinden highlights that Vincent loved his father and “actually wanted to be the father. That couldn't be. And that's one of the main questions in this whole story.” One of the central sibling conflicts was about who hewed to the norm and who strayed—and the burdens placed on the family by those who forged their own paths.

Anna Van Gogh Leeuwarden
Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Anna Van Gogh Leeuwarden, 1872-73, photographed by H.A.K. Ringler Leeuwarden

Elisabeth Van Gogh Leeuwarden
Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Elisabeth van Gogh, 1874-75, by H.A.K. Ringler Leeuwarden

Willemien Van Gogh Leiden Rienks
Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation).

Willemien van Gogh, 1878, by F. Rienks Leiden

In contrast to Vincent, who might have seemed strange to other villagers (“he doesn’t talk, he dresses completely different, eats alone,” etc.—were all comments leveled at the artist), Anna was the one who actually lived as her parents hoped she would. “She’s very obedient,” says Verlinden, “she takes over [Vincent’s] place.” Even when Anna was a teenager away at boarding school, she was already keenly aware of maintaining their social standing. She wrote to Theo, “Oh Theo, pray and follow Vincent’s example; remain a gentleman…we have no money but we still have a good name.” After school, Anna spent time working in England (as Wil and Vincent did, as well). When she returned to the Netherlands, she met and became engaged to Joan van Houten, with whom she would later have two daughters (they would both marry ministers).

Lies van Gogh would diverge from the path set out for her, though not in the same way as Vincent. An aspiring writer, Lies maintained an incredible correspondence with Jo van Gogh-Bonger (Theo’s wife) about writers such as Shakespeare, Goethe, and a particular favorite, George Eliot. She wrote to Jo, “My greatest ambition is to write something original, but it is such a high ambition that I might never attain it. For consolation, I remind myself that George Eliot only started writing later in life but—” Lies did publish some writing, but her primary occupation was as a companion and caretaker to a woman named Catharina. Lies had an affair with Catharina’s husband and secretly had a child out of wedlock. She later married Catharina’s widower, and they had four more children together.

Wil was the sister with whom Vincent was closest; they shared a passion for the arts, and Wil even accompanied Theo on visits to Degas’s studio during their travels. After her schooling, Wil took on different jobs as a governess, a nurse, and a religious teacher. Relatedly, she was also active in the first-wave feminist movement. Verlinden explains that this early movement was a “big wish for the future,” about “women looking for opportunities to strengthen their positions.” For Verlinden, the through-line is that Wil’s work was socially-driven, and her position as a religious teacher allowed her “to lift up people by making sure that they have proper food, proper housing, and proper education,” comparing the role to something like a social worker. But Wil’s health deteriorated as she got older, and in 1902, she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, where she remained until her death in 1941.

The sisters’ correspondence is striking in its completeness, its frankness about mental illness, and its intimate glimpse into their resilience, passions, and prioritization of their family.

The sisters’ correspondence is striking in its completeness, its frankness about mental illness, and its intimate glimpse into their resilience, passions, and prioritization of their family. And, as Verlinden notes, the sisters’ biographies have been uncovered because of the meticulous letter-writing and archiving practices of the nineteenth century. When Verlinden spoke to Art & Object, he emphasized this practice, noting that people would collect their letters by date, putting “the oldest at the bottom and then to the most recent, and then maybe for a year, or for five years, they like to put a ribbon around them and just keep them in a drawer.” People would have a few pen pals for large parts of their lives and when someone died, you would be able to gift those letters to someone else close to the person who had passed, as a set of memories.

These memories and missives contain multitudes, revealing new details about nineteenth-century women, as well as Vincent’s relationships, that we have not previously understood. With Verlinden’s discoveries, we recalibrate our conception of the Van Goghs. For not only did he write his letters to Theo with great warmth, but to his sisters, too; he signed off a letter to Wil in 1889, “I kiss you affectionately in thought, and more soon. / Ever yours, Vincent.”

About the Author

Sarah Bochicchio

Sarah Bochicchio is a New York-based writer and researcher. She focuses on history, fashion, art, and gender—and where all of those things intersect.

Subscribe to our free e-letter!

Webform

Latest News

8 Artists Who Took Their Mothers' Names
These eight artists bent the rules when branding themselves. Although they…
The Doodle: Art by Famous Non-Artists
Even though Dostoevsky’s drawings feel like a byproduct of his writing process…
What to See at Art Basel Miami Beach 2022

For its twentieth edition,

In Conversation with William Kentridge

Fundamental to the art of William…

Consider this Before Buying an Ancient Coin Necklace or Jewelry
There are many concerns and issues that surround the use of genuine ancient…