Theodorus “Theo” van Gogh was an art dealer and younger brother of Vincent van Gogh. Though overshadowed by his more famous sibling, it was Theo’s unfailing financial and emotional support that allowed Vincent to devote himself entirely to his world-famous art.
Not only did Theo unconditionally provide Vincent with painting supplies and money for the rest of his life, but gave him unwavering emotional support and love. Despite being far more successful than Vincent by societal standards – he was a respected art dealer, married, financially successful – Theo admired his elder brother his entire life.
It was Theo who urged his brother to continue his work and who constantly praised him, expressing deep and abiding respect for a man often wracked with self-loathing and frustration. Theo was one of the few people that Vincent could talk to and confide in, and he served as a constant source of support during Vincent’s darkest times.
Subsequently, the brothers maintained an intensive correspondence – of the 800 letters Vincent wrote during his lifetime, around 75 percent were to Theo, including his first and last. Though communication was difficult given Vincent’s poor health and financial circumstances, Theo continued to write letters with much enthusiasm.
The majority of Theo’s letters and communications with Vincent are filled with praise and encouragement, as well as concerns about his mental health. In turn, Vincent would send Theo sketches and ideas for paintings – in addition to various rants and trivialities – that Theo would take in with the utmost delight and eagerness.
A portrait of Theo done by Vincent that was originally thought to have been a self-portrait. Its true subject was revealed only in 2011.
It should be noted that these letters are one of the main and only sources of information about Vincent’s life, providing many detailed accounts of Vincent’s circumstances, thoughts, feelings, and the like. It is largely thanks to Theo and his wife that these letters are available today, having been collected and published in a compilation, The Letters of Vincent van Gogh (unfortunately, few of Theo’s letters survive as Vincent failed to keep them).
In 1886, Theo invited Vincent to come and live with him in Paris, introducing him to such notable contemporaries as Paul Gauguin, Paul Cézanne, Henri Rousseau, and others. Allegedly, he tried to use his connections as an art dealer to bring attention to Vincent’s work, but evidently none of his paintings were ever sold.
It goes without saying that Vincent’s death hit his brother hard. Already suffering from dementia paralytica, a syphilitic infection of the brain, Theo died just six months after his older brother, at age 33. The cause of death included “sadness” from grief as a factor. He was survived by his wife Joanna and his only son, Vincent Wilhelm.
It should also be noted that Theo’s work as an art dealer played a vital role in bringing attention to contemporary Dutch and French artists and movements. For example, Theo was instrumental in promoting the popularity of Impressionist artists such as Claude Monet and Edgar Degas, persuading his employers, Goupil & Cie, to exhibit and buy their works.
In 1914, Theo’s body was exhumed and reburied with his brother at Auvers-sur-Oise in Paris, where it can still be seen today.