'Sadness will last forever': Living with the Van Gogh legacy

'Sadness will last forever': Living with the Van Gogh legacy

'Sadness will last forever': Living with the Van Gogh legacy

Updated 27 April 2017, 11:40 AEST

Vincent Van Gogh's final words were a grim prophecy for his descendants.

As he lay on his death bed, having apparently shot himself, Vincent Van Gogh is said to have uttered the final words, "The sadness will last forever".

It's hard to imagine a bleaker prophecy from the famed and deeply troubled Dutch artist.

And yet, more than 125 years later, the Van Gogh family can attest to a fulfilling life that is, in part, devoted to honouring his work and preserving his memory.

"I think we all feel it's part of our legacy and we want to give it on to the next generation," said Josien Van Gogh, a great-grandniece of the artist.

"That's why in this moment we are educating our children to become aware of their history."

Josien is in Melbourne this week ahead of the largest exhibition of the artist's work ever held in Australia, which opens at the National Gallery of Victoria.

But it almost wasn't so.

'Don't play football near the Van Gogh's'

It was Van Gogh's nephew, Vincent Willem, who would ultimately inherit the enormous collection of paintings and sketches.

Willem is Josien's grandfather, and she can remember visiting a particular room in his house when she was just a child.

It was unheated and the paintings were stacked to each other and they were just there," Josien told News Breakfast.

"And then there were a lot of paintings hanging in the house as well, there was something like 20 paintings hung on the walls in the living room and dining room."

In Josien's own home there were a handful of original Van Gogh's hung on the walls, and yet the rules extended only as far as not being allowed to play football near them in the living room.

Sylvia Cramer is another great-grandniece of Vincent and is also on the Melbourne visit to see the new exhibition.

She said it took some time before she realised the significance of the works the family had in their homes.

"It was just part of [Willem's] life and it became part of our lives also," she said.

"They were there and the pictures were where you could see them hanging, but I think as child you didn't realise it was such a big legacy.

"It came more and more important over the years."

Giving up the inheritance

As the years progressed, Willem was faced with a problem: what should he do with the paintings when he died?

Dutch law meant that if he gave them over to his children they would be forced to pay an enormous inheritance tax, and they would be forced to sell some of the paintings just to cover it.

And so he devised a plan. In 1962 he established the Vincent Van Gogh Foundation, and in 1973 a museum devoted to his works was opened in Amsterdam.

"The most important thing, I think, is that the collection stays together for the largest part," Josien said.

"If my grandfather had decided otherwise, the paintings would perhaps have been scattered all over the world.

"Of course, his children had to agree with that idea as well, because they had to give up that part of their inheritance, but they did so very willingly and that's why we have this wonderful museum."

Today, no descendent of Vincent personally owns any of his work.

"Not a scrap of paper," Josien said.

And that includes the Almond Blossom, which was one of Vincent's final paintings and was made to celebrate Willem's birth.

"Then my grandfather got children and it hung in the boys' room above their bed. So it was part of their everyday life," Josien said.

Of course, there was one final condition from Willem: that at least one descendant of Vincent be on the foundation board at all times.

'We take turns as a family'

To say the Van Gogh family pays tribute to Vincent is something of an understatement.

Every year or two the entire collection of Van Gogh descendants come together and complete a trip to the places Vincent lived and worked around Europe, in an effort to impress upon the younger generations the importance of the legacy.

"Just to make it embedded in their lives too," Sylvia said.

And then there is the foundation board work and tending to the museum in Amsterdam.

"Sometimes I'm wandering in the museum and I think, if all these people knew we were relatives," Sylvia said.

"That's what I find hard to believe sometimes, is that all these people come for this artist, which is our legacy."

"It's overwhelming sometimes … it is a lot of work," adds Josien.

In an effort to maintain the legacy, but not be consumed by it, the extended family has a "program" to share the workload.

"So now I'm here, but next time it could be my sister, or [Josien's] daughter, who is travelling with us, so she's prepared for the next step," Sylvia said.

"So they have to take turns, you don't to do it your whole life, you just do it for a couple of years and then it goes onto the next."

Josien adds: "Because the name Van Gogh is disappearing in our family it is perhaps even more important that we educate them."

"Because if your surname is quite different from Van Gogh at a certain point you forget what your relation is to Vincent.

"We have a whole program for the next generation."