The world of art is filled with legends, and one name that stands out is Vincent van Gogh. Although not widely recognized during his lifetime, his works gained immense attention after his untimely death in 1890. But who propelled the late artist’s fame? Many credit his younger brother, Theo van Gogh, an art dealer who played a pivotal role in showcasing Vincent’s masterpieces to the world of modern painting.

Theo’s impact on Vincent’s life and career cannot be overstated. As both a colleague and a close brother, Theo and Vincent exchanged hundreds of letters during their 18-year journey together. Even today, we have the privilege of accessing 700 letters that provide a glimpse into Vincent’s later years and the people behind his success.

Childhood and Career of Theo van Gogh

Theodore “Theo” van Gogh was born on May 1, 1857, four years younger than his brother Vincent, in Zundert, the Netherlands. Theo began his career by working at his uncle’s gallery. Later, he followed in Vincent’s footsteps and joined the Dutch branch of the French painting brokerage company Goupil & Cie at the young age of 16. By the time he was 23, Theo had ascended to the position of director of the Paris branch, establishing himself as a prominent figure in the world of modern painting.

While Theo dealt primarily with paintings, sculptures, and contemporary art forms, Vincent embarked on his artistic journey at the age of 27 after experiencing numerous setbacks in various fields such as being a school clerk and a bookseller. Witnessing his brother’s hardships, Theo not only provided financial support but also bought him drawing tools. In one letter dated 1888, Theo expressed, “I’m talking about how much money I owe you, that I want to pay you back. I didn’t listen. You don’t have to worry about that at all.”

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Beyond financial aid, Theo connected Vincent with the leading avant-garde painters in contemporary Paris, including Paul Cézanne, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Georges Seurat, and Paul Gauguin. These artists, who later became known as Post-Impressionist painters, greatly influenced Vincent’s artistic development.

Relationship with Vincent van Gogh

More than money and connections, Theo provided unwavering spiritual support to Vincent. Even before Vincent decided to pursue painting, the bond between the two brothers was strong. Despite having three younger sisters and a younger brother, Theo and Vincent shared an exceptional closeness. In fact, it was Vincent’s time at Goupil & Cie that inspired Theo to join the company.

While Theo cherished working alongside his brother, he recognized Vincent’s true passion lay in drawing rather than painting. As early as 1873, the year Theo joined Goupil & Cie, he encouraged Vincent to pursue a career in painting. “I am so glad that the two of us can finally work in the same company,” Theo wrote in 1873. “You have to go to museums often, it would be good if you could meet the artists who came before, and if you have the opportunity, read a lot about painting, especially painting magazines…”

Over the following decades, Theo supported Vincent through numerous challenges, ranging from financial crises to bouts of depression. In 1886, Theo even invited Vincent to live with him in Paris, although Vincent’s stay lasted only two years due to feeling “utterly paralyzed” by the crowded city. Nevertheless, Theo continued to assist Vincent in numerous ways.

Their correspondence became increasingly significant in 1889 when Vincent’s mental instability began to manifest. Following a tumultuous encounter with artist Paul Gauguin, Vincent did something drastic: he severed his own ear with a razor. Subsequently, to seek solace and treatment, Vincent resided in the south of France. Despite the geographical distance, Theo consistently sent encouraging letters to his brother, assuring him of unwavering support. In one letter, Theo remarked, “You have said too many nice things about something completely insignificant, not to mention that you have repaid me so many times, both with your works and with a friendship that is worth a thousand times more than all my possessions…I am really heartbroken that your health is still not in the best state, both physically and mentally.”

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During Vincent’s time in the hospital, he continued creating art and shared his works with Theo through correspondence. Theo then made efforts to secure exhibition spaces for 16 of Vincent’s artworks. “Your work looked great in the exhibition,” Theo wrote. “Many people have asked me to praise you. Gauguin even said that his work is the key to the exhibition.”

After leaving the hospital, Vincent settled in Auvers-sur-Oise, a suburb of Paris. Thanks to Theo’s unwavering support, Vincent’s career soared, yet his depression persisted. On July 27, 1890, Vincent tragically shot himself and succumbed to his injuries after two days of intensive treatment. In his final letter to his beloved brother, Theo tenderly wrote, “Let’s hope our health improves because health is very important. In the envelope, I have sent you 50 francs, write to me soon and trust me, brother who loves you very much.”

Death and Legacy

In the months following Vincent’s passing, Theo’s health also deteriorated significantly. He was hospitalized in November for psychological treatment and, a month later, was diagnosed with paralytic dementia, a condition that ultimately led to his passing in January.

Though often identified as the patron of Vincent van Gogh, Theo established an illustrious career in his own right, making significant contributions to modern art. As one of the most prominent art dealers in 19th-century Paris, he played a vital role in promoting avant-garde art, popularizing the influential art movements of the time, such as the École d’Art, Impressionism, and Post-Impressionism. Moreover, Theo van Gogh was instrumental in bringing Vincent van Gogh’s paintings to the forefront of the art world.

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