Van Gogh’s governess

Van Gogh’s governess
26 September, 2019 Ron Dirven

From 21 September 2019 to 12 January 2020 the Van GoghHuis will be exhibiting an album containing portrait photographs of Vincent’s governess Anna Birnie (1844-1917). Following the recent discovery of photographs in the Birnie family archive, we can now put a face to Van Gogh’s governess. Anna Birnie taught Vincent van Gogh at home in Zundert for two and a half years. The daughter of a drawing tutor and artist, she presumably helped Vincent create his first drawings.

The role of Van Gogh’s governess is largely overlooked in Van Gogh’s biography. It was generally assumed that his parents educated him at home after taking him out of Zundert primary school at the age of eight. There are, however, sufficient indications that Anna Birnie played an important role in his education. She entered his parents’ employment shortly after they had decided to take care of Vincent’s education themselves. It would seem obvious that she was hired specifically for this purpose. At the time, it was customary among well-to-do middle classes to have a governess provide lessons, and not the parents. This included creative subjects. We can assume Birnie was skilled in this area, as her father was an artist and drawing tutor. Moreover, notes from ‘Aunt Mietje van Gogh’ state that Vincent made a drawing for his parents copper wedding anniversary, a surprise Birnie had prepared. Further drawings by Vincent coincided with her stay in Zundert, including a farmhouse with an open barn that he drew for his father’s birthday.

Anna Philippina Carolina Birnie was born on December 9, 1844 in Kampen. Her family owned a carpet factory in Deventer and a tobacco plantation in East Java. Her father was painter Steven Birnie, city draftsman and art tutor in Kampen from 1827 to 1848. Anna was probably put in touch with the Van Gogh family in Zundert through Vincent’s aunt ‘Bertha’, a boarding school keeper in Kampen. Reverend Van Gogh wanted a governor from a Protestant environment to take care of educating his children. He also contracted her to give singing lessons during catechization in the Protestant church. Anna Birnie remained Vincent’s dedicated teacher for the entire period of his home education. Six months after he had left for boarding school in Zevenbergen on October 1, 1864, Anna returned to Kampen. She later returned to Zundert to take care of the other children.