With hindsight these efforts to publicize Van Gogh’s correspondence can be seen as preparatory moves towards the final breakthrough: the second decade of the twentieth century witnessed three publications that were crucial to knowledge of Van Gogh’s life and work and to the artist’s wider international reputation.

3.1 The letters to Emile Bernard, 1911

In 1893 Emile Bernard embarked on the Mercure series of extracts from the letters Van Gogh had written to him out of idealism, but something over fifteen years later the Parisian art dealer and publisher Ambroise Vollard decided that the time was right to crown Bernard’s preliminary work with a separate complete edition.46 On 25 January 1910 he drew up a contract with Bernard: for 2,000 francs Bernard, as the owner of the manuscripts, sold the publication rights for a period of six years, during which Vollard could print as many copies as he wanted provided he adhered to the agreed design and sold them for at least 10 francs. On 18 October 1911 Bernard confirmed receipt of the sum due. Oddly, Vollard paid him another 840 francs on 23 January 1912 ‘for full payment regarding the edition of Van Gogh’s letters to him’.47 It would seem that Bernard received a royalty for each copy sold, although there is no mention of this in the contract. It is also possible that the payment related to the introduction Bernard provided for the edition.
We do not know how many copies Vollard sold. Vollard’s surviving sales ledgers are far from complete and give us very little to go on. They do, though, reveal that the price paid for a copy was usually around 70 francs, which means that the discount for a batch of a hundred copies that was sold for 1,500 francs in November 1923 was considerable.
The design of the book was clearly conceived with an eye to the bibliophile market; nowadays it is a collectors’ item. The typography is generous, with wide margins, a hundred reproductions of Van Gogh’s drawings, letter sketches and paintings in black and white and two colour reproductions ‘hors texte’. Forty copies were printed on Japanese paper. The cover, designed by Bernard, bears a simple ornament, the title and the publisher’s name in handwritten lettering, printed in orange and blue. The proportions within the text block are remarkable: just over eighty pages have been devoted to the texts of the letters, while the preliminary matter occupies seventy pages. It consists of a forty-three-page ‘Préface’ especially written for this edition by Bernard and four other articles by him about Van Gogh: the two introductions to the series of letters to Bernard and to Theo that had appeared in the Mercure de France, the 1895 introduction to an edition of the letters in book form that had come to nothing, and the essay on Van Gogh that had been published in Les hommes d’aujourd’hui.
Bernard wrote in his introduction that he was reproducing the letters in full, including the peculiarities of Van Gogh’s French and the sometimes improper language, which, he asserted, had often been prompted by drink.48 Nonetheless the text has been expurgated, either by replacing names with initials or with an X, or by rendering offensive or indelicate words simply by the initial letter followed by dots – the unintended result being to draw attention to such passages. Perhaps he felt that his friend’s memory required such corrections. But Bernard must also have been the source of another explanation, reported by Douglas Cooper in his English edition of these letters in 1938: ‘Bernard himself, it is true, wanted to publish the whole text, but at the last minute M. Vollard for personal reasons, partly on account of Degas, saw fit to omit several words, not to mention whole sentences and paragraphs.’49 There are other places where the Vollard text is not entirely accurate either, and Cooper included in his book a five-page list of ‘Emendations to the Published Text’ based on the original manuscripts.

3.2 1914: Jo van Gogh-Bonger published Vincent van Gogh. Brieven aan zijn broeder

All these publications and exhibitions had aroused growing interest in Van Gogh’s life and work, and the wheels of the myth machine began to turn. Van Gogh’s sister Elisabeth (Lies) wrote a memoir, Persoonlijke herinneringen (1910), and at a stroke all sorts of unverifiable assertions about his youth were proclaimed as facts.50 The numerous inaccuracies in the book were immediately denounced by Johan de Meester, who turned to Jo van Gogh-Bonger for his information.51
The activities of the art lover and ‘art educationalist’ H.P. Bremmer had a major influence on the Van Gogh reception in the Netherlands. He published widely on Van Gogh, in the journals he ran, Moderne Kunstwerken (1903-1910) and Beeldende Kunst (1913-1938), and elsewhere.52 He gave lessons and courses on modern art, frequently using Van Gogh to illustrate his ideas. Some of the people who attended his courses, mainly women, were very wealthy, and Bremmer advised them on purchasing art.53 The most famous of the collectors he advised was Helene Kröller-Müller, who gave her name to the museum in Otterlo that now has some 260 paintings and drawings by Van Gogh in its collection, most of which came from her.
In 1914 Brieven aan zijn broeder, edited by Jo van Gogh-Bonger, thus clearly fell into the most fertile soil conceivable.54 It was a bulky, three-volume edition, in which she published only the letters from Vincent to Theo (and to her, after her marriage in 1889) along with a few family letters, such as letter 98 to his parents and letter 788 to his mother. At last she had rid herself of the huge burden she had assumed on Theo’s death; her mission was over. She had originally intended to get the job done in the foreseeable future, but it took much longer than she had expected.
In the foreword she described how, as Theo’s young wife, she had seen the drawer containing Vincent’s letters in their apartment in the cité Pigalle in Paris, and continued:
After Vincent’s death Theo told me that some part of these letters had to be published, but death took him before he could do more than make a start on carrying out this plan.
Almost twenty-four years have passed since then.
It has taken a great deal of time to decipher and organize the letters, and this was all the more difficult because the dates were usually missing – but there was another reason that made me hold back from publishing them earlier. It would have been unfair to the dead [Vincent] to generate interest in his person before the work to which he gave his life was recognized and appreciated as it deserved to be. Many years passed before Vincent was recognized as a painter; now people can become acquainted with him and understand him as a man.
May the letters be read with reverence.55
She herself had made a crucial contribution to the recognition of Van Gogh’s work in the intervening years. As the guardian of a significant part of the oeuvre she had done her utmost from the outset to exhibit and sell drawings and paintings. She had been entirely successful; for a long time art dealers and exhibition organizers in the Netherlands and beyond could not circumvent her if they wanted to do anything of any magnitude with Van Gogh’s work.56
As her words reveal, she essentially saw the letters as a means of getting to know Van Gogh as a man. In other words she was not really concerned with their art historical value. The introduction that preceded the letters was consequently strictly biographical and, as such, the first really extensive description of the artist’s life based on the accounts and memories of reliable witnesses. The tone is sympathetic in that while she does not entirely gloss over certain difficult aspects of Van Gogh’s character, she records them compassionately, almost apologetically. And she constantly refers to the extraordinary bond between the brothers Vincent and Theo. It is clear from every word that this edition – a monument to Vincent – had to be a monument to Theo too.57
After almost a century of incessant study into Van Gogh’s life and work, we now know that Jo van Gogh-Bonger’s introduction suffers from a considerable number of errors and omissions, but given the possibilities open to her at the time it is nonetheless a creditable sketch of his life. Despite the personal, involved tone the account is very factual – a great contrast, deliberate or otherwise, to Julius Meier-Graefe’s rapturous outpourings and the idealizing tenor of Elisabeth du Quesne-Van Gogh’s little book.
Her introduction covers fifty-four pages, followed by the letters, divided into periods that coincided with the places Van Gogh was living or staying; this has since become standard practice. Each period was preceded by a very brief introduction summarizing the most important events. A great many of the letter sketches were illustrated. The letters were numbered consecutively throughout the publication – numbering that became standard and remained unchanged until the publication of the present edition.58 It is clear from the preface that she had a lot of difficulty with the sequence and the dating; this is also evident from the surviving letters that had been in her possession; on them are jotted numbers that were often corrected several times. She also often noted dates on the manuscripts, only some of which she included in the published version.
The letters were printed in the language in which Van Gogh wrote them; in practice this meant that the first two volumes covered the Dutch years and that volume 3 contained the (predominantly) French letters, beginning with Paris 1886. In principle it is a purely textual edition (not an annotated work), but in some places Jo van Gogh-Bonger felt compelled to add a footnote, usually to clarify the circumstances of what had been written, although she also put in an occasional literature reference or historical explanation. Most of these insertions occur in the letters from the years 1889-1890, the period of her marriage to Theo.
She writes nothing whatsoever about her editorial principles. In so far as she had formulated a standpoint for herself, she did not choose to burden her readers with it. The mores of the time when it came to publishing letters were very different from standards by which, all being well, present-day publishers treat their material. In literary publishing it was quite normal for an editor to edit the text as he saw fit, not just as regards typographic uniformity and the other often unavoidable changes needed to translate handwriting into print, but pure text editing too. Jo van Gogh-Bonger took full advantage of this ‘editorial licence’. Specifically, this meant that in many places she omitted a name, a few words or a whole passage, short or long. Sometimes she abridged a long string of edifying quotations or omitted all or part of long enumerations, probably on the grounds that one can have too much of a good thing, or perhaps simply to save space. In other cases she suppressed passages about issues that impinged on family sensitivities or might cast a slur on the reputation of family members who were still living.59 One example is the abbreviation (but oddly enough not consistently) of Kee Vos’s name to the initials K.V. What she wrote to Paul Gachet Jr concerning Van Gogh’s remarks about Dr Gachet, particularly that he was ‘just as sick and exhausted’ as Vincent and Theo, is telling in this regard: ‘If you see something that you would not like to see in print – I can leave it out ... if you prefer, I can cut the sentence.’60
Given Jo van Gogh-Bonger’s ties to the Van Gogh family, such interventions are understandable (which is not to say they were justified), but she also expunged from the correspondence – probably by mutual agreement – paragraphs about people who were still alive. It also appears that she wanted to conceal certain personal matters from prying eyes. On 14 June 1922 the art historian and publicist Gustave Coquiot wrote about the cuts in his notebook: ‘Mrs van G.-Bonger has been criticized for publishing certain distressing letters from Vincent. And yet she has kept some of the most distressing secrets ... what can these letters be!’61
A comparison of the manuscripts with the version in the 1914 edition throws up many more misreadings and omissions, and from a present-day, purist editing viewpoint one can censure her for her shortcomings. Yet she left intact the general picture of Van Gogh that emerges from his letters and produced a book that was a goldmine for generations of art lovers and art historians.
Aside from the bulky appearance of the edition, the plain, not needlessly academic approach reflected the ideology of the publisher, officially the Maatschappij voor Goede en Goedkoope Lectuur in Amsterdam, but known to the public as De Wereldbibliotheek or WB, after a series of publications for which it was known.62 De Wereldbibliotheek’s purpose was to publish literature, attractively designed, at reasonable prices, so that good writing was accessible to a broad cross-section of the population. Jo van Gogh-Bonger’s choice of this publishing house was undoubtedly influenced by her socialist sympathies. People could subscribe to the editions. The three-volume set Brieven aan zijn broeder cost f 7.50 stitched, f 10 bound.
Jo van Gogh-Bonger’s surviving correspondence with the publishers reveals that 2,100 copies were printed (2,075 of them for sale);63 the contract was signed on 18 January 1911 with the intention of bringing the book out in 1912, ‘but not before 1 November of that year, unless Paul Cassirer in Berlin also publishes the German edition of these letters earlier’.64 It is clear that at an early stage the idea was that the Dutch edition and the German version (about which more later) should appear at about the same time. This is indeed what happened – but not until 1914.
Remarkably, Jo van Gogh-Bonger financed the publication herself. It was a considerable investment and one that would seem to indicate that the publisher was unwilling to bear the risk. To put it another way, this illustrates the efforts she was prepared to go to for Van Gogh: it was literally worth a very great deal to her to get the letters published. The surviving archive materials and Jo van Gogh-Bonger’s account book provide a picture of the financial side of the enterprise. Altogether she spent f 5,785.99½ on the production of the first three volumes.65 The publishers received 20% commission on the actual proceeds of sale; other costs, such as binding and a printing tax levied at the time, came out of the balance. Half of the remaining sum went to Jo van Gogh-Bonger.66 She noted the income up to 1919 in her account book; it came to 4,721.03.67 It emerges from the correspondence that she received another 3,581.83 for the 1919-1923 period, bringing the total proceeds for her to f 8,302.88. This means that, after deducting costs, she earned just over 2,500 in the ten years it took to sell the whole edition, an average of f 250 a year. Not exactly a generous return given the risk that she took. What is more it was seven years before she recouped her costs.
On the other hand, the venture had gone well enough for De Wereldbibliotheek to carry half of the production costs of the reprint they proposed in 1924, with a maximum of f 5,000 for Jo van Gogh-Bonger. The other conditions remained virtually unchanged.68 The edition was almost the same size as the first impression, 2,000 copies. The text was reset. Since relatively few stitched copies of the first edition had sold, it was decided that all the copies of the second edition should be bound. The three volumes sold for f 15.

3.3 1914: The letters to Theo translated into German

With the series of extracts from the letters in Kunst und Künstler69 and the subsequent anthology, Bruno Cassirer had whetted German readers’ appetite for more of Van Gogh’s letters. And yet in 1914, the year Brieven aan zijn broeder came out in the Netherlands, it was his cousin and former business partner Paul Cassirer who published the German translation of these same letters.70 Jo van Gogh-Bonger owned the rights, and we can identify at least two reasons why she chose to throw in her lot with Paul Cassirer for the major edition rather than Bruno, who one might think had a prior claim. To start with, she was upset because she had not been told about the publication of excerpts from the letters in the German magazine, nor in the anthology, which had been reprinted more than once. Bruno Cassirer had gone his own way, basing his publication on the excerpts printed in the Mercure and Van Nu en Straks. On 8 July 1910 he did suggest he might produce a larger, illustrated edition (in exchange for which he would stop reprinting his anthology), but this proposal was not accepted.71
This aside, as an art dealer Paul Cassirer was an important conduit to the German art market for Jo van Gogh-Bonger, and he had sold a good many Van Goghs from 1900 onwards.72 As early as 13 May 1909 he wrote to her: ‘As I have often told you, I should very much like to publish Van Gogh’s letters.’73 His eagerness is apparent from the fact that he made Jo van Gogh-Bonger a number of specific financial proposals without having the slightest idea of the total size of the manuscript. Negotiations followed, Paul Cassirer went to see her to tie up a few loose ends, and a contract was signed on 25 July 1910. It specified an edition of 2,080 copies for sale, eighty of them in a de luxe version, although precisely what this involved was not specified.74 There would also be a further hundred standard and fifteen de luxe copies that would not go into the trade. The result was a book in two heavy volumes. The letters in Dutch were translated by Leo Klein-Diepold, those in French by Carl Einstein.75