Monday, October 7, 2013

Observations on Art 10.6

Part 1: When it is it is ....

Over a month ago the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam announced Sunset at Montmajour was indeed an original painting by Vincent van Gogh. I've been wanting to write a post about it because the history of the painting is an awesome story and most of what I have read has left out parts of it. More often than not articles have been more like reviews of Sunset at Montmajour and nothing more. The powers that be in the art world have decided it isn't one of van Gogh's best works as if it were some sketch tossed into the trash can. It's a van Gogh, that's my review. Now the story behind it.

When Sunset at Montmajour was painted in 1888 Vincent van Gogh was 35 years old and had by then sold just one painting. He wrote a letter to his brother Theo van Gogh describing the painting which he said he had painted the previous day, "at sunset, I was on a stony heath where very small, twisted oaks grow, in the background a ruin on the hill and wheat fields in the valley." (Read the letter here.) Vincent later sent the painting to Theo for storage. Two years later, in 1890, Vincent van Gogh arguably committed suicide in a field near Auvers-sur-Oise, now in the suburbs of Paris.

After Vincent's death Theo van Gogh inventoried his collection of paintings and gave Sunset at Montmajour the number 180. Just two years after Vincents death Theo himself died and his collection was broken up and sold as the paintings had rapidly begun to increase in value.

In 1901 painting number 180, than known by its original name Sun Setting at Arles, was sold to the French art dealer Maurice Fabre during one of the first retrospectives of van Gogh's paintings. In 1908 Fabre sold the painting to a novice collector and Norwegian industrialist Christian Nicolai Mustad. Mustad proudly showed his new treasure to France's ambassador to Sweden who told Mustad that he doubted its authenticity. Probably embarrassed at his mistake Mustad never showed the painting again and Sun Setting at Arles disappeared into Mustad's attic and from history.

The painting was stored in the attic until Mustad's death in 1970 when the family called in collector Daniel Wildenstein who dismissed it as a fake or possibly a painting by Adolphe Monticelli who preceded van Gogh's period and who van Gogh admired. The family sold the painting to an unknown collector who later sold it to it's current, also unnamed, owner. In 1991 the Van Gogh Museum itself refused to authenticate, or even look at, the painting.

There are many reasons for the doubted authenticity over there years not the least of which is that the painting wasn't signed but van Gogh didn't sign many of his paintings. It is from a late traditional period of his painting after which he began using thicker brush strokes. Also there is an almost total lack of paper trail as beginning with Fabre none of the transactions were properly recorded.

What changed between 1991 and 2011 when the Van Gogh Museum began the authentication of Sunset at Montmajour and what went into authenticating it? The museum finished editing and had published Vincent's letters to Theo and had the detailed description I mentioned above. During the authenticating process X-ray examination of the canvas showed it identical to canvas van Gogh used for other paintings from the period including The Rocks which is in Houston's Museum of Fine Arts. Finally modern analysis of the pigment, the artistic equivalent of genetic sequencing, showed the painting's were the same as those used by van Gogh at Arles.

Is Sunset at Montmajour the 'last' van Gogh? One never knows because the painter was known to destroy works he didn't like and his letters are filled with descriptions of paintings that have never been see.