top of page
  • Writer's picturetimeless travels

New exhibition challenges view of Van Gogh as lonely, tortured artist

by Matilda Hickson

Portrait of Vincent van Gogh by John Peter Russell
Vincent van Gogh by John Peter Russell in 1996. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

A new exhibition opens on Saturday, 21st September, at the Noordbrabants Museum in s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands, and seeks to challenge the long held view that Vincent van Gogh was a lonely, tormented soul who received little credit, respect or recognition for his work in his own age. Entitled Van Gogh's Inner Circle. Friends, Family, Models it tells the story of his relationships via 99 paintings, sketchbooks, works on paper, photos and letters. The exhibition has been curated by guest curator and Van Gogh expert Sjraar van Heugten, in close collaboration with Helewise Berger, curator of 19th and early 20th-century art, at the Noordbrabants Museum. Loans are from various renowned Dutch and international museums, among them The Art Institute of Chicago, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Kröller-Müller Museum and Van Gogh Museum, together with private collectors.

A portrait of Vincent's brother, Theo
Portrait of Theo van Gogh, Vincent van Gogh, Summer 1887. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

It is a charming exhibition, well curated and includes some well-known paintings, but the treasures lie in the lesser-known ones and also the letters and photos on display, and its well-rounded narrative. Frankly, it would be a relief to believe that van Gogh was not an outcast to society and had loved ones who supported him. The message is that although the artist was by no means an easy person, and his abrupt manner and obsessive commitment and critical eye could alienate those around him, he had many who also greatly appreciated him. And so the exhibition endeavours to show that throughout his life he kept in close and often long-lasting contact with his friends, family, models, fellow artists and lovers.

'Girl with a Shawl', Vincent van Gogh, 1882/3. The girl used as a model is thought to be Seen Hornik

The exhibition is arranged so that the most important people in Vincent’s life appear in chronological order, from his years in Brabant and The Hague, then in Paris and the south of France until his death in Auvers-sur-Oise on 29 July 1890. His immediate and extended family are focussed on, as well as his friendships with artists such as Émile Bernard, Paul Gauguin, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Camille Pissarro and Paul Signac. His relationship with the former prostitute Seen Hoornik and her two children, which lasted for over a year, is used to show that Vincent enjoyed family life, and included are works of his students Anton Kerssemakers, Willem van de Wakker and Antoon Hermans.

The exhibition portrays van Gogh's relationships with family, friends and models

There are paintings and drawings Vincent made of his friends, (and ones they made of him) family and models, the (self) portraits of his inner circle, as well as more personal documents, such as letters, photos, sketchbooks, poetry scrapbooks and letters of condolences. All of these are used to provide insight into the person behind the artist. One particular standout portrait is the painting of Vincent by John Peter Russel, which captures him like none-other I've seen. Other favourites include a self portrait of Vincent and his brother Theo which are small in size and have been placed side by side.

Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Paul Signac, 10 April 1889.

Vincent's letters are of the utmost importance to an exhibition such as this one, and it is good to see some of them displayed so you can see both sides of them. A quote from a letter from Theo to his sister Will, shows that he understands his brother very well: 'It's as if there are two people in him, the one marvellously gifted, sensitive and gentle, and the other self-loving and unfeeling. They appear by turn, so that first one hears one way of reasoning and then the other, and always with arguments for and against. It's a pity that he's his own enemy, because he doesn't just make life difficult for others but for himself as well'. (14 March 1887).

Jo van Gogh-Bonger by Isaac Israels, 1924

The final work presented in the exhibition is a portrait of Jo van Gogh-Bonger by Isaac Isreals. During the last two years of his life, Vincent was well-known in avant-garde circles and his work was exhibited in Paris and Brussels. After his death, Theo wanted nothing better than to bring his brother’s work to the attention of many people, but he died six months after Vincent. Émile Bernard in his turn became a major champion of Van Gogh’s reputation. He wrote an article for a prominent magazine, organized an exhibition and published many of Van Gogh’s letters. After Theo’s death, his wife, Jo van Gogh-Bonger, took it upon herself to make people more acquainted with Van Gogh. She sold a number of Vincent’ works, put them on loan for exhibitions and published his correspondence with Theo. Partly because of his powerful life story, Van Gogh’s work gradually conquered the world. This would never have happened without Jo's perseverance.  

Émile Bernard's Portrait of van Gogh

I always enjoy exhibitions where I can learn something as well as feast my eyes, and Van Gogh's Inner Circle achieves this effortlessly. The information about his family, the models he used, his fellow artist friends and the people he stayed with and who supported him (such as the Ginoux family in Arles), is fascinating and good to be reminded of. This is the first time that attention has been paid to those who had an impact on Van Gogh as a person and an artist, and so this new approach will appeal to those who already know his work. But it is also a brilliant introduction to both the man and his work for those who are less knowledgeable, so don't miss it!


The Het Noordbrabants Museum in s-Hertogenbosch lies in the region of Brabant, which boasts three van Gogh Heritage locations, 39 van Gogh monuments and 435 kilometres of cycle routes that link them. In conjunction with the exhibition and for for its duration, visitors are being offered the opportunity to discover the most unusual and hidden van Gogh locations. For example, the Nune Ville in Nuenen, the house where van Gogh's girlfriend Margot Begemann lived, will be open to visitors on certain dates, and the Vincent van Gogh Huis in Zundert has a special exhibition Suze Robertson and Mareen Welteu-Alongside Van Gogh. Suze Robertson was a contemporary of Van Gogh and is widely considered to be his female counterpart during her life.

In the Van Gogh church in Etten-Leur, there is an exhibition by photographer Marc Boom, called Closer to Van Gogh, where he recreates Van Gogh portraits with live images. In the Vincentre in Nuenen there is an exhibition featuring his artist friends from his Nuenen period, including Dimmen Gestel, Anton Kerssemaers and Willemvan de Walker. For all activities in Zundert, Tilburg, Helvoirt, Etten-Leur and Uenen, visit


Van Gogh's Inner Circle. Friends, Family, Models

Het Noordbrabants Museum

s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

Showing from: 21 September - 12 January 2020

For more information CLICK HERE


bottom of page