Not many people know that Vincent van Gogh had three sisters: Anna, Elisabeth (Lies) and Willemien (Wil). They are only sporadically featured in the literature about Vincent and not much was known about them until now, in part due to the fact that Vincent painted just one of them. In Spring 2016, Willem-Jan Verlinden’s book (80.000 words, 50 black/white illustrations, 16 in color) came out about these sisters–three minister’s daughters who each led remarkable lives during a turbulent period in European history.

Art historian Verlinden came up with the idea for this book while writing How I Love London, the book about Van Gogh’s years in London (together with Kristine Groenhart, pub. 2013). During that time he came across the three Van Gogh sisters. As he began to investigate them further, more and more sources came to light: family chronicles from both the father’s and mother’s sides, books by Lies about her eldest brother and their childhood, school reports, medical files, documents from descendants of Van Gogh filled with letters, memories and clippings, but mainly hundreds of letters either written by or addressed to the sisters. Together, these documents and letters paint a story certainly worth telling.


The Van Gogh Sisters tells the story of a Protestant ministerial family in the predominantly Catholic province of North-Brabant during the latter half of the nineteenth century. The family would go on to leave the Catholic villages in the south and spread out to other parts of the Netherlands and across the border, all during a time in which a lot changed on social, economic, and artistic levels. Therefore, the book also provides an impression of the changing role of women in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, of modernization, industrialization, education, feminism and the fin de siècle, of nineteenth - century art and literature, and — of course — of Vincent’s death and his meteoric rise to fame.


Most importantly, however, this book offers a clear depiction of the personal lives of the three sisters. The oldest, Anna, worked as a governess in England when she was a young woman, married well and was caring, tidy, and devout. She would ultimately be the reason that Vincent, after a conflict with her, left the Netherlands and never returned.


The second sister, Lies, gave birth to an illegitimate daughter in France, had literary aspirations, and increasingly appropriated her famous brother’s art in later years. However, after her husband died, she fell into poverty and was forced to sell a lot of her brother's paintings.



Willemien, the third sister, sought her purpose for a long time. She worked for short periods as a governess, a nurse, and a religious teacher. She later became active within the first feminist wave and visited the studio of Edgar Degas in Paris, together with her middle brother Theo. She spent the second half of her life in a psychiatric institution. Her stay was paid for by the other sisters through the sale of Vincent’s paintings, whose value quickly increased during their lives, in part thanks to the efforts of their sister-in-law Jo Bonger.