JOHANNA by Claire Cooperstein


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A richly detailed first novel about a hitherto unsung -- at least in fiction -- heroine of art history whose unswerving belief in her brother-in-law Vincent's genius preserved his legacy for posterity. Seamlessly weaving imaginary and real letters together with fictional excerpts from Johanna van Gogh's diary, Cooperstein not only illuminates a pivotal period in art but also introduces a remarkably courageous and independent-minded woman. The story begins at the end of 1888 as the Bonger family of Amsterdam prepare to announce daughter Johanna's engagement to art-dealer Theo van Gogh. The announcement is delayed when Theo is summoned to Arles -- Vincent has just cut off his ear -- but the couple soon marry and live in Paris, where Theo is a leading champion and personal friend of the still-maligned Impressionists. The couple's happiness, however, is shadowed by Vincent's increasingly frequent breakdowns -- events for which, only years later, Johanna discovers intriguing explanations. Moved to a hospital near Paris, Vincent continues to paint, relying on Theo for both financial and emotional support. Then, in January 1890, a son is born to Theo and Johanna, but Vincent's death from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in July precipitates an emotional crisis for Theo, who within a few months also dies. The grieving Johanna moves in briefly with her family in Amsterdam but soon flees her autocratic father to run a boardinghouse in a nearby resort. Here, she entertains artists and critics, stores van Gogh's paintings, and works tirelessly to get them exhibited. She eventually succeeds as van Gogh and his fellow Impressionists are at last recognized. And along the way, Johanna's life is enriched by political work, her son, and her 1899 marriage to critic and artist Johan Gosschalk. An intelligent and persuasive debut: a work of ""faction"" with enough novelistic insights to give it a vibrant credibility.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1995
Page count: 272pp
Publisher: Scribner