The story of Vincent van Gogh’s three younger sisters is not one of undiscovered genius, the way Virginia Woolf imagined Shakespeare’s sister, thwarted and silenced by the constraints of gender, in A Room of One’s Own. Anna, Lies, and Willemien van Gogh are quite ordinary, but that is not to say uninteresting. Paying attention to ordinary lives can do vital work in redressing the imbalances of history.
Yet because Van Gogh himself remains so extraordinary, so unbalancing, it is almost impossible to get free of him, a vortex tugging all the light in the starry sky toward himself. Just last month, a single small painting of a street corner in Montmartre fetched more than $15 million at auction at Sotheby’s in Paris. Explicitly or not, all Van Gogh biographies, even this one, are pulled back to the same endless question, of how this outwardly ordinary Dutch minister’s son created his revelatory body of work.