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HERstory: Johanna Van Gogh-Bonger. A Creative and Critical Exploration of the Role a Woman Played in Vincent van Gogh’s Rise to Fame

Smailes, Caroline



Catherine Cole

Robert Graham

Emma Roberts


Taking Nochlin’s view that, ‘We will need our wit and courage to make sure that women’s voices are heard, their work seen and written about’ (Nochlin, 2015, p. 321), this two-volume thesis by practice addresses why creative women became invisible in two ways – critically and creatively. It responds to Nochlin’s conversation by offering solution within a fictionalised account of Johanna van Gogh-Bonger’s life. The critical thesis (Volume I) deliberates the importance of Nochlin’s battle cry (Nochlin, 1971) and Chicago’s response (The Dinner Party, 1979), alongside the wider questions of ways in which women involved in creative pursuits disappeared from historical narratives and how they are being reimagined in contemporary creative practice. A gatekeeper’s function in the lives of creative women throughout time is measured, by identifying the specific role of the male caretakers who have either deliberately or inadvertently excluded or erased creative women; often, I maintain, simply by privileging those men around them. Additionally, the relevance of counting as a feminist strategy and the need to vocalise numbers in order to identify any disparity in gender representation in areas of the arts, to chart improvement and decline, is argued. A novelist’s ethical and moral responsibilities when fictionalising a real life are also addressed, before identifying the key creative concerns – developing character, plot, voice, secondary characters - while recreating Johanna van Gogh-Bonger on page. The creative work (Volume II), MRS VAN GOGH, is a fictionalised account of the life of Johanna Van Gogh-Bonger, showing what can be done to allow erased women to be both rewritten into historical narratives and to be viewed as equal to creative men. Through this novel, I offer a new way to reconstruct a historical epoch by redefining a once-disappeared creative woman, whose rich life as an artist’s sister-in-law and art dealer’s wife overshadows her key contribution to the reputation-building she undertook for the van Gogh family. The novel, I argue, debates a series of creative and critical questions about the nature of female agency in art movements in the late nineteenth century, illustrating that women were key contributors to Modernist ideas. I conclude that this research project further extends feminist scholarship, asserting a need for continued conversation about the contribution made by creative women to the arts


Smailes, C. (2022). HERstory: Johanna Van Gogh-Bonger. A Creative and Critical Exploration of the Role a Woman Played in Vincent van Gogh’s Rise to Fame. (Thesis). Liverpool John Moores University. Retrieved from

Thesis Type Thesis
Deposit Date Dec 12, 2023
Public URL
Publisher URL
Additional Information Liverpool John Moores University
Award Date Feb 21, 2022

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