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Vincent van Gogh is dominating the art history news

In 1997 the Art Newspaper announced 45 or more Vincent  van Goghs may well be fakes; eminent van Gogh schol­ar Jan Hulsker had questioned the authenticity of some of the art works. Since then, experts in the Netherlands have been sorting out van Gogh's oeuvre - here are two examples of paintings held in American galleries.

The Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford Connecticut has had a Vincent van Gogh still-life oil painting, called Vase With Poppies 1886, in their coll­ection since 1957. The painting’s authenticity was called into question in 1990 by the art historian and Van Gogh expert Walter Feilchen­feldt, who raised concerns about many supposed van Goghs around the world. Plus there was some suspicion that, because the paint­ing had been donat­ed by a person who was not known as a coll­ector, its proven­an­ce might have been dodgy. So the painting was taken out of museum display and locked away.

So the Hartford Museum to set out to authenticate Vase With Pop­pies. Thomas Loughman, director of the Wadsworth Atheneum, said five years ago they started using their own digital X-ray tech­nol­ogy. Amazingly this revealed a man, underneath the flower painting: a ghostly self-portrait in profile of Van Gogh. Since poverty relentlessly dogged van Gogh all his short adulthood, they understood that the artist reused the canvas to save money.

So they sent the painting to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam where experts were able to verify that the linen support matched other linens that Vincent was using in these years. The paint samples indicated that he was using the same kind of paints. And stylistically, this picture fitted into this transit­ional per­iod i.e with the other floral paintings the artist made shortly after arriving in Paris. Since the paint, materials and style were all correct, the Amsterdam analysis proved that Vase with Poppies was indeed a Van Gogh.

Wadsworth director Thomas Loughman believes the work has revealed just how much art historians still need to learn about Vincent and his growth as a painter. It was a transitional period because the Dutch artist had been new to Paris and was exploring new avenues for his paintings. The early summer of 1886, a few months after the artist’s arrival in Paris, was a perfect time for poppies to flower.

van Gogh 
Vase With Poppies 1886,
27 x 35.6 cm

Vincent Van Gogh's Vase with Poppies will return to the Wadsworth Atheneum in late April 2019, joining the Atheneum’s other van Gogh - a self-portrait painted in 1887. Then Poppies will go out on loan to Museum Barberini in Potsdam Germany in October 2019.

In the early autumn of 1886 Van Gogh wrote to his British artist friend Horace Livens, confirming that he lacked money for paying models. He had therefore spent the summer making a series of colour studies in painting simply flowers, red poppies, blue corn flowers and forget-me-nots, trying to render intense colour.

The was a second painting, perhaps by van Gogh, that needed to be carefully examined. In 1960 Bruno and Sadie Adriani donated Still Life With Fruit and Chestnuts (1886) to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, suggesting it was done by Van Gogh in Nuenen in 1884. The painting depicted two pears and an apple nesting in a cluster of autumn chestnuts. Inscribed on the reverse of the canvas was the phrase “Nature mort, peint par Vincent van Gogh”.

But because the colouring appeared unusual for that period, the painting was not displayed in the Fine Arts Museum. Furthermore the picture was not included in the two standard Van Gogh catalogues [by Jacob-Bart de la Faille 1970 and Jan Hulsker 1996] and more recently it was rejected by Walter Feilchenfeldt 2013.

Vincent van Gogh 
Still-life with fruit and chestnuts, 1886
27 x 36 cm

The still-life painting was sent to the Van Gogh Museum in Amst­er­dam. Special­ists there determined that the canvas and the paints matched Van Gogh’s work. Stylistically it was regarded as fitting in with the still lifes which the artist made in Paris between Oct-Dec 1886. The Amsterdam museum’s infrared reflectography revealed that the artist reused the canvas. Originally Van Gogh had painted a port­rait, but as he was always short of money in Paris as we noted before, he sometimes painted over earlier works. The original portrait appear­ed to be a female wearing a scarf, probably done some months earlier when he was in Antwerp.

The painting’s provenance can now be traced. There was reference to “pears and chestnuts” in an 1890 inventory, compiled shortly after Van Gogh’s death, with the word “Bernard” added - his friend Emile Bernard? Emile Bernard’s mother sold a work with that title (and the dimensions of the San Francisco picture) to the Parisian dealer Ambroise Vollard in 1899.
van Gogh, 
Still Life, Vase with Daisies and Poppies, 1890

Still Life with Fruit and Chestnuts will be loaned to Frankfurt's Städel Museum, for the exhibition Making Van Gogh: A German Love Story (Oct 2019-Feb 2020). See Van Gogh’s works acquired by early collectors in Germany.

It was worth getting it right. A Vincent van Gogh still-life, painted just months before his death in 1890, was Still Life, Vase with Daisies and Poppies. It was sold at the New York Sotheby's auction in 2014 for $61.8 million.


British galleries have feared that uncertainty around Brexit was making European institutions nervous about lending their works. But anxieties were particularly acute about the blockbuster Van Gogh and Great Britain Exhibition at the Tate Britain, which opened 27th March, just two days before Britain was to leave the EU. The Netherlands and UK embassies were asked to intervene with the two countries’ culture ministries. Discussions with member states led to the European commission drawing up new customs guidelines - paintings loaned before Brexit but returning after it can be treated as Returned Goods, the guidelines indicate, and will therefore be free from import taxes.


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