The Van Gogh Museum has put on display a painting by van Gogh of the plains below the ruins of the abbey of Montmajour. The museum calls it a “new discovery,” although it has known the painting for 22 years and in the past rejected its authenticity. The Van Gogh is not telling us as much as it should.
Axel Rüger, director of the Van Gogh Museum, showing van Gogh’s Sunset at Montmajour to artist-actor Jeroen Krabbé on the day when the painting went on public display.
“Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum on September 23 unveiled a newly discovered landscape painting from the height of the Dutch master’s career, abandoned for years as a forgery in a Norwegian attic. ‘Sunset at Montmajour,’ a large oil landscape from 1888, was unveiled to applause by the museum’s director Axel Rueger as a ‘unique experience that has not happened in the history of the Van Gogh Museum.’ Depicting a landscape of oaks in the south of France, the painting was brought to the museum from a private collection.”
This text, from the outstanding and highly recommended ArtDailyNewsletter of 25 September, is typical of the reports that have been emerging from the Van Gogh Museum since the initial announcement on 9 September 2013 that an important painting by Vincent van Gogh, unrecorded since 1901, has been identified and published. “This discovery,” the museum said in its press release, “emphasizes the importance of research that the Van Gogh Museum, as expertise centre, carries out into Van Gogh’s painting method and life.”
The recovery of van Gogh’s Sunset at Montmajour for the public and the art world is heartening and enriching. However, there are more issues involved than the recovery alone, and not all of these live up to the gold standard of good custodianship. Of the too many problematic aspects of the case that struck me, let me report only on four: the “newness” of the “discovery”; the questionable role of the Van Gogh Museum in the history of the attribution of the painting; the silence concerning ownership of the painting; and the deficiency of some of the proofs adduced for van Gogh’s authorship of the painting (which in itself I do not doubt).
To us the existence of Sunset at Montmajour might be new, but the Van Gogh Museum has known the painting for 22 years. It was submitted for judgment in 1991, at which time the museum notified the owner that “we think that the picture in question is not an authentic Van Gogh.” The quotation is from the scholarly publication on the re-attribution in the October issue of the Burlington Magazine, the art-historical equivalent of an article in Nature or Science. (Louis van Tilborgh, Teio Meedendorp and Oda van Maanen, all curators at the Van Gogh Museum, “’Sunset at Montmajour’: a newly discovered painting by Vincent van Gogh,” The Burlington Magazine 155 , nr. 1327, pp. 696-705.) Given this embarrassing fact, the rhetoric surrounding the announcement should have been toned down considerably. The painting should not be called “newly discovered,” certainly not in a journal of record like the Burlington. A more accurate title for the article would have been “Sunset at Montmajour: the Van Gogh Museum changes its mind about an attribution and corrects an old error of its own.”
The way the museum does deal with the error not only fails to make it into the title of the article, it barely gets into the footnotes. In correspondence from November and December 1991, the museum – then as now the ultimate arbiter of authenticity in the van Gogh world – issued in private the erroneous judgment that the painting was “not … authentic.” As we shall see, the proofs for van Gogh’s authorship of the painting are so powerful and were so knowable to the museum, that its behavior in 1991 amounts to a miscarriage of authority. For the history of connoisseurship and for the evaluation of the record of the Van Gogh Museum as an “expertise centre,” it seems to me called for that the museum publish and comment on the correspondence in its archive. In addition to more scholarly matters, one wants to know whether the museum informed the owners about the proofs it now advances in favor of an attribution to van Gogh. That information could have been of great value to them. In 1990 the highest price ever fetched by a work of art at auction, $82.5 million, was paid for a van Gogh portrait of Dr. Paul Gachet. When the owners of Sunset at Montmajour brought their painting to the Van Gogh Museum, a positive judgment would have been worth tens of millions. The rejection robbed the painting of nearly all its value.
In contrast to most contested attributions, this one was decided by a smoking gun. When Vincent’s brother Theo died in 1890, leaving all his belongings to his wife Jo Bonger, Jo’s brother Andries drew up a Catalogue des oeuvres de Vincent van Gogh, an inventory of the paintings by Vincent in the estate. Number 180 of the list was “soleil couchant à Arles (30).” “The subject and size of the picture match that description,” we read in the Burlington (“The number 30 is an identification of the format [‘Portrait’ 30 = 92 by 73 cm.]),” “ but the clinching piece of evidence is simply that the number 180 is written on the back of the canvas.”
The location of the Catalogue des oeuvres de Vincent van Gogh is not given in the article in the Burlington, nor is the document illustrated there. It can be found on Internet in the marvelously rich material provided by the Van Gogh Museum to the website The memory of the Netherlands, with the reference: “b 3055 V/1962 (document), Brieven en Documenten, Van Gogh Museum.” The image of the reverse of Sunset at Montmajour is from the article in the Burlington Magazine.
This is indeed proof of exceptional power, compared to which none of the new testing methods of the last twenty years to which the museum now refers in justification of its change of mind could have contributed much at all, except lack of negative evidence. It leaves you wondering all the more about the reasons the museum could have had in 1991 to conclude that the painting is “not an authentic Van Gogh.” What more proof than that number could one possibly want for the authenticity of a late nineteenth-century painting of a quintessential and documented van Gogh subject to which Vincent moreover made reference in several letters? Or did the museum really think that the painting was a forgery? And why should the Van Gogh have waited to reconsider this unique case until the painting was once more submitted to it for an opinion, rather than returning to it on its own, in the exercise of its function as “expertise centre”?
The answers to these questions are presumably linked to the identity and behavior of the succeeding owners of the painting, about whom and which the museum goes out of its way to tell us nothing whatsoever. The only reported fact concerning ownership of the painting after it was sold by Jo is that it belonged, probably from the early twentieth century on, to the Norwegian industrialist Christian Nicolai Mustad (1878–1970). The museum, which I assume is in possession of all provenance information since 1970, does not name his heirs by name. “In 1991,” people who are identified only as “following owners,” concerning whom we do not even know whether they were the first ones after the Mustad estate, “contacted the Van Gogh Museum and, although the picture was felt to be interesting, it was eventually decided that it was not by Van Gogh. That may be a painful admission, given that the same Museum is now attributing it to Van Gogh, but that is not incomprehensible, and nor was the initial rejection.”
The grounds that made the initial rejection of a painting marked on the back with a number written on it in 1890 “not incomprehensible” are not vouchsafed unto us. The relevant note in the Burlington article reads: “Letters to the then owner of 18th, 26th and 28th November 1991 and, after having seen the work, in a letter of 18th December 1991 (Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum Archive): ‘we think that the picture in question is not an authentic Van Gogh.’” Had the museum not made the connection between the number 180 on the back of the canvas and the Bonger list? Was it so put off by weaknesses in the painting that it felt that these overrode such merely circumstantial evidence as the correspondence of numbers? Tell us!
By all appearances, the museum seems to be withholding vital information from the public in order to protect its right to show the painting for a year. Aside from the undisclosed ownership and provenance, the museum has also failed to tell us about an apparent leak of confidential information that casts a shadow on present proceedings. Last June, someone who knew that the museum was going to give a stamp of approval to Sunset at Montmajour put the painting into play on the market for 150 to 200 million dollars. (See Stefan Koldehoff in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung of 13 September, who hints that the Van Gogh Museum showing is an extended viewing for the intended sale.)
Considerations of this kind are bound to have their effect on scholarly practice as well. Once it had decided that the painting was by van Gogh, the museum lowered some of its methodological standards to irresponsible depths. One of the pillars on which the attribution to van Gogh of Sunset at Montmajour is said to be based is that the pigments it contains were characteristic for his palette in Arles, where the painting was made. The strongest statement for this case is found in the museum press release of 9 September: “Technical research has shown that the pigments used correspond with those of Van Gogh’s palette from Arles – including the discolorations that are so characteristic of his oeuvre.” One step down from this unconditional claim is taken in the Burlington, where we read: “Almost all the pigments are the ones he habitually had on his palette at this time” (p. 698; my italics). Only in a note to this remark are we told that not all the pigments identified were in fact “on his palette at this time.” Concerning “an organic red pigment (redwood) on a substrate containing tin and possibly aluminium [and] an organic red pigment (cochineal),” we read the factual statement “As far as we know these types of organic red pigment have not previously been identified in paintings by Van Gogh from his Arles period,” followed by the astonishing qualification “but there is a lack of comparative material owing to the limited analyses of other paintings from the period” (p. 699).
In other words, when a piece of evidence supports the conclusion of the Van Gogh Museum it is maintained at full strength even if it is blemished, while if the same facts contradict that conclusion they are brushed off the table for “lack of comparative material.”
In defense of the comprehensibility of his decision to do whatever it took to present this major work to visitors for a year, Axel Rüger told the press that “we would not be taking our mission seriously if we let this opportunity pass.” I would expect more justification than that from a museum that in most ways indeed carries out its mission to the highest standard. My own feeling is that this time around the Van Gogh Museum, which in so many other respects is a model of outstanding custodianship, has lowered the bar of museological transparency further than necessary.
© Gary Schwartz 2013. Published on the Schwartzlist on 2 October 2013. Responses are always welcome at Gary.Schwartz@xs4all.nl
Yesterday Loekie and I enjoyed one of the monthly public sessions of the Amsterdam Centre for the Study of the Golden Age of the University of Amsterdam (UvA). On the first Tuesday of each month, the Centre invites a scholar in the field to give a lecture on his or her current work, followed by a generous block of time for discussion. This last feature is something I particularly appreciate, along with the free drinks and finger food to which the attendees are afterwards treated at one funky neighborhood pub or another. Yesterday’s talk, by Dirk van Miert of the UvA, was on a juicy subject – the “hair war” fought out by Dutch theologians in the 1640s on the way men had begun to wear their hair long, vainly and effeminately. One party among the preachers took sides with St. Paul, who in 1 Corinthians 11 asks: “Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him? But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering.” The literary inventiveness expended on the subject by the anti-hair Utrechters and the Leiden defenders of hair freedom was delightful. Not until after the question session did I think to ask van Miert whether the anti-hair campaign was not directed at least in part against homosexuality. He denied this, although he wondered whether it was significant that one of the Leideners, Claudius Salmasius, was regarded in his time as a homosexual. A heavier-going aspect of the talk is that van Miert relativizes the importance of Spinoza as a pioneer of secularism in European philosophy. The hair party preceded him in fundamental Bible criticism. On both points I retain a measure of doubt.
On 14 and 15 October the 15th anniversary is being celebrated of CODART, the international network for museum curators of Dutch and Flemish art that I founded in 1988 in cooperation with the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heriage. The anniversary is being celebrated in grand style with a top-notch symposium in the Rijksmuseum. I should have mentioned this as soon as it was announced. Now the hall is full and no new reservations are being accepted.
Anyone in New Orleans on Saturday, 5 December, is welcome to attend a lecture on Rembrandt etchings that I am giving at Windsor Fine Art. Don’t be shy about introducing yourselves.
The newly initiated appeal to readers to support the Schwartzlist with donations has begun very gratifyingly. All donations are acknowledged personally.