Is THE SECRET LIFE OF SUNFLOWERS based on a true story?
The historical half of the book is. Johanna Bonger was a real person. She was married to Theo van Gogh, Vincent's brother. In the novel, I tried to stay as close to Johanna's real story as possible. I pieced together her life from her diary and from letters between Vincent and Theo.
Theo really did propose to her when they barely knew each other. He and Vincent were friends with her brother Dries. Johanna moved to Paris with Theo and had her son there, lived there until Theo's illness and eventual death, when she moved to Bussum and ran a boarding house. She did introduce Vincent's legacy to the world.
While I did my best to tell the story with historical accuracy, I made small changes here and there for the sake of better storytelling. Johanna had two village carpenters in Bussum who helped her with framing Vincent's paintings, and one of them is referred to as Janus, but there's no record that he was hopelessly in love with her. Also, while her brother Dries did recommend that she should move home after Theo's death, I don't think he was as harsh with his judgement of Vincent paintings as I've depicted. After all, he was friends with the Van Gogh brothers. And while Richard Roland Holst did criticize Johanna's enthusiasm, it wasn't to her face, but rather in writing, after she organized an exhibition of Vincent's paintings in 1892.
"Mrs Van Gogh is a charming little woman, but it irritates me when someone gushes fanatically on a subject she knows nothing about, and although blinded by sentimentality still thinks she is adopting a strictly critical attitude. It is schoolgirlish twaddle, nothing more. [...] The work that Mrs Van Gogh would like best is the one that was the most bombastic and sentimental, the one that made her shed the most tears; she forgets that her sorrow is turning Vincent into a god."
(Quoted in J.M. Joosten, "Van Gogh publicaties (15) deel 6", Museumjournaal 15 (1970), pp. 157-58, note 61.)
In other aspects, I stayed as true to history as I could, down to the specific paintings that hung on specific walls, or where she vacationed with Anna Dirk, and that her little son, Wil, got terribly sick from cow milk. Even the books I mention she read, are books that she did read at that time, according to her diary.
I'm not an art historian, so I expect I made some mistakes, but my goal was to at least introduce this remarkable woman to readers. Hopefully, people will come to admire Johanna as much as I do and they'll investigate her tragic yet inspiring life. I believe that her story is worth knowing.
Links for Further Research
If you’d like to learn more about Johanna Bonger, I recommend the following sources:
The Woman Who Made Van Gogh: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/14/magazine/jo-van-gogh-bonger.html
Johanna Bonger: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johanna_van_Gogh-Bonger
Johanna Bonger’s Diary: https://www.bongerdiaries.org/dagboek_jo_1
Vincent van Gogh’s letters: https://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters.html
In case you are curious, these are some of the paintings mentioned in the book