Imagine visiting your grandparents' house while you're still young and being surrounded by many of the world's most famous and expensive works of art, just casually hanging on your parent's parents' walls. Then imagine the specialness of the paintings hardly registering, both because you happen to be one of the few people who shares a full name with the artist, but also because you happen to have a few more original pieces back at home.
This was the unique childhood of Vincent Willem van Gogh, the great grandnephew of the artist he's named after. Willem (the name he prefers to use) eventually understood the fame of his ancestor, but he still spent his early life and career attempting to find his own way and make his own name beyond the colorful shadows of van Gogh. With no interest in becoming a van Gogh expert, Willem managed a theater company for years and then became a lawyer. It wasn't until he became the first of his familial generation to join the board of the family-founded (along with the Dutch government) Vincent van Gogh Foundation that he began to, in a way, join the family business.
After over a decade practicing law, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, Netherlands, asked Willem to head their gift shop, a job that would later turn into his broader role as ambassador to the museum. "I thought well, that's a very nice way to end my career," Willem told The Huffington Post.
As part of this year's commemorative van Gogh celebrations -- based around the 125th anniversary of the artist's death -- the Van Gogh Museum just opened their exhibition "Munch: Van Gogh," pairing the Dutch and Norwegian artists together to highlight the little-known similarities of the two European masters. In anticipation of this exhibit, the Van Gogh Museum offered HuffPost access to multiple employees, including Willem. HuffPost will be publishing a brief series of articles based on these and other interviews from the museum. See our second installment of the series below.
1. Until the 1960s, descendants of van Gogh had half of his works -- such as "The Potato Eaters" -- simply hanging in their homes.
Willem had a "very close relationship" with his grandfather, who privately owned the van Gogh collection at one point. In his grandfather's house, masterpieces such as "Yellow House" and "Almond Blossom," hung in plain sight, with the latter residing above the sofa in the living room.
"'The Potato Eaters' [hung] on the wall, next to the dining room. 'Sunflowers' in the living room," as Willem explained to HuffPost.
When Willem was around the age of 10 in 1962, his grandfather transferred the collection to the family and Dutch-state run Vincent van Gogh Foundation.
2. Van Gogh dedicated "Almond Blossom" to his brother's son. That nephew had the painting over his bed, despite having pillow fights.
Theo van Gogh, the artist's brother, wrote to his sibling in 1890, announcing the birth of a son, saying, "As we told you, we’ll name him after you, and I’m making the wish that he may be as determined and as courageous as you." This nephew, who was the aforementioned Willem's grandfather, was named Vincent Willem, a common name in the family.
"Vincent was very happy about the news," said Willem, recalling van Gogh's reaction. "He painted the 'Almond Blossom' and dedicated the painting to his new nephew." The artist then sent the painting to Theo and his wife Johanna in Paris, where they hung it above the newborn's bed.
As the baby got older and shared a bedroom with brothers, it's somewhat of a wonder how the painting survived. Willem recalls asking his grandfather what it was like to have "such an iconic piece" over his bed, to which his grandfather replied, "Yes, I still can not imagine [how] nothing ever happened."
The brothers "had pillow fights," according to Willem, who also echoed, "It's a miracle that nothing ever happened." The painting remains a favorite of the van Gogh descendants and was the highest selling replica at the Van Gogh Museum gift shop during Willem's tenure.
3. The family didn't have any special security and Willem's parents would often leave the kitchen door unlocked.
Willem recalls his parents having "three or four paintings" on loan from his grandfather to decorate the living room. The shaky memory of how many van Goghs were in the house certainly exemplifies the unique situation of these descendants.
"I grew up with those paintings," Willem said, remembering that during his childhood, there weren't any special security measures for the paintings. "None at all," he stressed.
"I didn't have the key of our house, so when I came back and my parents were not at home they left the kitchen door unlocked," he said. Although this may sound panic-inducing today, those were "different times." Van Gogh may have been very famous, but the prices for art weren't as meteoric as they are today.
The family wasn't scared about "every plumber, every carpenter that worked in [Willem's] house" stealing the works, as the paintings weren't publicly considered to be worth millions yet. That said, his parents did eventually return the paintings to his grandfather to forgo responsibility. They weren't going to be the ones to lose original van Goghs in a fire or a robbery.
4. The van Gogh descendants had a system of loaning the works amidst the family.
As mentioned, Willem's parents had paintings loaned from his grandfather, but this was also a practice that extended to the rest of the family. In Willem's house, they "didn't have iconic works" as he explained, but they were still "very nice ones." His aunt, similarly, had a van Gogh depiction of a sailboat on the sea.
5. Despite being surrounded by his paintings, the family rarely spoke about van Gogh. There was, however, a family story about what caused the artist to commit suicide.
Willem said that it was important to his family members that they be known not just as the descendants of van Gogh. His grandfather "found his own way in life," and this led to van Gogh's life not being "much discussed in the family," despite the masterpieces decorating the walls around them. Speaking of his grandfather, Willem said he "didn't want to start his career as Vincent van Gogh's nephew," a sentiment the other descendants have shared in their own ancestral relations.
A story about the artist that was passed down had to do with van Gogh's death, which would obviously be a point of curiosity for the children. Willem recalled his grandfather saying to the grandchildren that van Gogh had drank too much absinthe and that had "made him mad on the last days of his life."
BONUS: Willem didn't understand van Gogh's fame during his childhood until a family trip when he encountered a reproduction of "Sunflowers," which hung in his grandpa's house.
As a kid, it was hard for Willem (pictured above) to grasp the notoriety of his last name. "I knew that Vincent was a very famous artist, but I didn't get the impact of that. I didn't feel his fame," Willem recalled.
It wasn't until a family camping trip at the age of 10, when they travelled to the beaches of the south of France when Willem finally felt the reach of the name. Halfway to the beach, a few hundred miles from where they lived, the family stopped at a hotel. "In my hotel room, hung a reproduction of 'Sunflowers.' The 'Sunflowers' I knew so well from my grandfather's home," Willem said. "So then I realized the impact of Vincent van Gogh. Seeing a reproduction in another country in a random hotel."
This may have been the most meaningful experience a family hotel guest has ever had with the room's wall art.
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