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Brotherly Love: The Story of Vincent & Theo van Gogh

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Nothing beats having a brother. Knowing you have a partner in crime is essential in order to fully take advantage of all the shenanigans that childhood affords you, and brothers just always seem ready to get down and dirty. I know my childhood would have been much blander without constantly being the victim my brother’s endless schemes, as scarring (literally) as they may have been. 

In honor of all the bodacious brosephs out there, we are going to celebrate National Brother’s Day with one of the most steadfast brotherhoods in art history: the van Gogh brothers.

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Vincent and Theo van Gogh’s dynamic relationship truly highlights what brotherly love really means. Before we dive into their renowned relationship though, we should probably establish who Theo was as his famed brother often overshadows him. Theo was the younger brother who always seemed to play the role of big bro due to Vincent’s…peculiarities. He made a respectable living, had a wife and kid, and for all intents and purposes seemed to have his s**t way more together than his brother - or so it appeared. Turns out, Theo may have been just as mentally unstable as his brother, but we will get to that later.

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A young Theo van Gogh.

Besides each other, these two had something very important in common: a love of art. They both got their start in the art world working for Goupil & Cie - one of Europe’s most prestigious firm of fine art dealers. It was this job that allowed Theo to become a very established man in the art world in his own right. Actually, during their lifetime, he was way more ingrained in the art world than ol’ Vincent. I suppose that is not too much of a feat though since Vincent never really excelled at anything during his lifetime, or at least he barely got the recognition for it. For example, it didn’t take long for Vincent to get the boot from his job at Goupil & Cie and ultimately ending moving back in with his parents. A struggling artist moving back in with their parents? Couldn’t be… Well nonetheless, this marks the point in which Theo began taking sympathy on his brother and bank rolling his life - one of the defining aspects of their relationship. Ever heard of the idiom give an inch and they’ll take a mile? Well, Vincent’s actions were the epitome of this. After tossing his bro some sympathy change, next thing Theo knew, Vincent was living with him in Paris. From squatting on his parents’ couch to his brothers, I would say he was moving up in the world. Theo on the other hand, did not see it this way.

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Theo couldn’t stomach living with his brother. In a letter to their sister Wilhelmina, Theo once explained of Vincent, “He loses no opportunity to show that he detests me and that I repel him. This makes it almost unbearable for me at home.” Sheesh, sounds like typical sibling drama. Surely it brought great relief to Theo when Vincent realized that he could no longer stand the hustle and demands of the big city. It was time for him to move to the South of France, Arles to be exact.

Arles proved to be an immense inspiration for Vincent. The sunshine and vibrant colors did wonders for his artistry and soon he took up residence in his iconic yellow house, which doubled as his studio. The last two years of his life spent in the South of France is where Vincent would make his most adored work and solidify his artistic style for which he is revered for today.

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The Yellow House by Vincent van Gogh at the Van Gogh Museum

While Theo may have struggled living with Vincent, upon his absence, he felt a looming void and was ultimately incomplete without the vivacious Vincent in his home. Of course these two were notorious for the incessant correspondence through their letter writing, so while they were physically apart, they were always linked together in their thoughts and bank accounts. Theo would continue to financially support Vincent for the rest of his life. In fact, it has been estimated that Theo shelled out about $18,000 during the span of Vincent’s life. Doesn’t sounds like much, huh? When we take this nifty thing called inflation into account that number today jumps a wee bit bringing us closer to $400,000. I told you we are talking some serious brotherly love here. Of course Vincent always saw the money as an investment and not as charity. Sadly, neither brother would ever see this money from his art come back to them.

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In a way, Vincent’s art career was really a joint project shared between the brothers. Vincent may have been the painter, but it was Theo who sent him the materials and was his emotional cheerleader and professional art world aficionado/consultant. If it were not for Theo, Vincent may never have become the esteemed artist we know him as today. Furthermore, Theo always encouraged Vincent to mingle with the up-and-coming artists who he worked with artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec and Gauguin. Theo even tried to sell his clients on the innovative value of Vincent’s work, though there were never any takers. His inability to sell his work was never due to a lack of trying on Theo’s part, for Theo was undoubtedly Vincent’s number one supporter.

His unwavering love for his older brother held strong even as Vincent’s mental health started to deteriorate. Sure Vincent was always a bit unstable between his frequent bouts of depression and his rumored addiction to absinthe (not to mention his penchant for consuming his paints), but things really took a turn for the worse during his last two years. Of course there was the notorious ear mauling incident and soon after he committed himself to a mental hospital (that Theo obviously paid for). Even with the help of assisted living, Vincent did not make it long before he put a bullet in his chest. Being the brother he was, Theo was so quick to jump on a train, he was able to sit next to Vincent as he passed away on his deathbed.

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Life was not easy for Theo after his brother’s passing. In fact, he too ended up in a asylum shortly after. Some speculate that Theo lost it after Vincent’s death, feeling great guilt over his early demise. Others theorize that Theo went crazy due to contracting syphilis. Either way, the van Gogh brothers, as different as their lives may have been, ultimately came full circle and both ended just as tragically. Theo died just 6 months after Vincent. Even in death these two are still together, buried side by side in a commune in France.

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By: Jennifer

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Jennifer Tucker

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