30 March 2019

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.


Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I have always felt that collectors or museums should not be in a hurry to burn paintings that have been declared fake--just wait for the next round of experts. This time, however, it seems that the experts are doing it right, considering all factors--materials, stage in the artist's career, etc., to establish the criteria and production values that indicate authenticity and importance.

Even then, there are still problems such as restoration and inpainting that can alter the artist's original intent as well as the visual impact of the work. Art authentication is one of the most complex fields imaginable.

Andrew said...

I agree with Jim. Don't destroy any works. Just keep them stored. To me the value in a work of art is the beauty of the work, not really who made the art and it is hard to understand the dollar value placed on some works.

Loaning artwork and Brexit never came to my mind, but I see how it can be problematic. The security and the ownership of the work shouldn't be in question. The rest is another reason why so many educated people in Britain thought leaving might be a good idea.

Hels said...


nobody burns fake or doubtful paintings. Partially as you say because the next lot of experts might change their minds. But also because there is a scholarly interest in faked art (as long as the artist acknowledges the forgery). The Museum of Art Fakes in Vienna has paintings from all my favourite forgers such as Han van Meegeren, Tom Keating, Elmyr de Hory, David Stein, Eric Hebborn etc.

Restoration and inpainting are more difficult, agreed. The restorers only wanted to restore old works, not con modern buyers.

Hels said...


I am always thinking about Brexit and hope the Brits have another referendum. But this is the first time that I, also, had thought about the impact of Brexit and loaning artwork.

The "Van Gogh and Great Britain" Exhibition at the Tate Britain is their annual blockbuster. Can you imagine hundreds of thousands of visitors to the Tate being turned away because the European galleries weren't allowed to send their masterpieces to London? Or the European masterpieces going back to their homes after the London exhibition and being trapped in a customs war?

Joseph said...

Hel the Frankfurt Museum is advertising their exhibition as taking van Gogh in the context of his German reception. Germany played a key role in the success story of the Dutchman. Without the reception history in Germany, the development of modern art and van Gogh's popularity would have been unimaginable.

This is very surprising.

Hels said...


Strange, indeed. The Städel said it will present an in-depth look at van Gogh’s œuvre in the context of its reception in Germany. But it meant van Gogh's reception _decades after_ the artist's death. I have no doubt that van Gogh's works really did have significance for the development of German Expressionist art.

Fortunately the Städel has a wide collection of Expressionist works. Visitors will be encouraged to look at the influence van Gogh had on Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Max Beckmann, Erich Heckel and others.

Fun60 said...

Thank you for that insight into Van Gogh's work. There was an excellent TV programme called 'Fake or Fortune' which tried to establish whether certain paintings were fake or not. The results were often surprising and you felt that some art establishments were not keen to admit that a painting previously thought of as fake might actually be genuine. I hadn't realised there was a problem with the exhibition at the Tate. I can't wait to go and see it. Fortunately I am a member so don't need to get a ticket as I think they will be sold out in no time.

Hels said...


I always watch Fake or Fortune because they start a lengthy process that seems relevant to any private or public art owner. But I had not felt that some art experts were reluctant to admit that a painting previously thought of as fake might actually be genuine. You are right, of course. Yet another example from a relatively rare artist might impact on the prices of that artist's work! Worse still, it might have a negative impact on the experts who had previously given a very different report.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Hels - it's interesting how many works of art are being 'verified' now or authenticated. I hadn't seen either of these two works of art ... they are brilliant and it's so good to see them. One forgets about the transition periods when painters 'grow' as artists - even the masters. I hope to get up to the Tate ...

... but when I was out in Canada I went to see the film 'Vincent' ... and wrote about it in March last year ... it was the way the film was created that fascinated me ... it's an animated biographical drama film. It embraced so many creatives in its fulfilment ... I loved it.

I keep learning ... cheers Hilary

Hels said...


Thank you.

I saw the film At Eternity's Gate with Willem Dafoe. Van Gogh was so talented in his use of colour etc, yet he seemed anxious, lacking self confidence and exhausted. Another thing the film suggested was that he didn't only turn to still-life paintings to avoid models' costs. But for a man who didn't think he would live very long, he wanted images that would last forever.

Hels said...

The central premise of Van Gogh and Britain is that he was thoroughly steeped in British art. Other shows have argued the case for French Impressionism, Japanese prints, the paintings of Rembrandt or Jean-Francois Millet with considerably more success, for the simple reason that these influences are plain to see. Britain is a much bigger problem.

It is true that the show also contains John Everett Millais’s powerfully dreich Chill October, which Van Gogh loved, and may have remembered when painting the dying light in his own Autumn Landscape at Dusk a whole decade later. And here is a Whistler Nocturne, though it is a considerable stretch to suggest that it had any effect whatsoever on Starry Night, with its golden emblems of hope ablaze in the midnight skies over the Rhône. Van Gogh’s supreme originality is all there in those stars and whorls and flakes of brilliant light.

Laura Cumming
The Guardian
Sun 31 Mar 2019

bazza said...

Heaven save us from 'experts'! We need them like a fish needs a bicycle.
I find more pleasure in looking at Van Gogh's works than almost any other artist!
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s justly Jocular Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Maria Blassingame said...

Way cool! Some very valid points! I appreciate you penning
this post and also the rest of the site is really good.

Hels said...


Now, now! As more and more lost, stolen and perhaps fake art pieces turn up, we will increasingly need experts to assess the works scientifically.

But there is a warning, of course. The experts will have to publish their test results and their detailed findings. Otherwise they might be rejecting some works to, for example, maintain THEIR galleries' scarce collections or to keep up their collections' dollar value.

Hels said...


Thank you. What a shame that Vincent van Gogh never knew about his (eventual) success, after he died as a young man. And what a shame he didn't have any happiness in his family or professional life.

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