Van Gogh's Sunset at Montmajour
The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam unveiled this painting today, declaring it a work of famed artist Vincent Van Gogh. This painting has spent much of its life lying in an attic. Originally painted in 1888, it was in the possession of Vincent's brother, Theo. The painting passed from Theo to an art dealer, who did not record the sale of the painting, creating a gap in the provenance. The painting is unsigned, and was originally rejected by the museum as a fake for that reason.
So why is it considered authentic now? Vincent wrote letters regularly to his brother, Theo. In one letter, he describes this painting, and says he painted it the day before (July 4, 1888).
"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. It was romantic. ... The sun was pouring its very yellow rays over the bushes and the ground, absolutely a shower of gold."In Theo's collection, the painting was numbered 180, and that number is on the back of the painting. The subject matter matches the description in Vincent's letter. The brush strokes look typical of Van Gogh as well, though this piece is considered a transitional work as the artist progressed to his famed thick strokes of paint. In essence, through his writing, Vincent was instrumental in authenticating his own piece of art. What could be better than that?
A Norwegian industrialist bought the painting in 1908, and was told it was a fake. He banished it to the attic. In 1970, the painting was again declared a fake. It changed hands, and in 1991, the museum declined to authenticate it. This wonderful piece seemed doomed to a lifetime of obscurity. However, it has now "resurfaced" and with technical evaluation of pigments and the written record of Vincent himself, it has been officially declared a Van Gogh...again (since Theo sold it as a Van Gogh originally). Thanks, Vincent, for another beautiful treasure in a wonderful body of work!
If you would like to know more about the modern processes involved in authenticating artwork, check out the wonderful BBC series, Fake or Fortune. These shows are entertaining, as well as educational.
You might also be interested in my other blog posts about Vincent Van Gogh in Auvers-Sur-Oise, and a painting that many claim is a work by Leonardo DaVinci.