Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A "New" Van Gogh

It's not every day the world gets a new van Gogh painting.

Oh, sure, there are folks who *think* they have an original van Gogh, but thinking you have one and having one are two different things. These days, the official imprimaturs come from the good scholars of the Van Gogh Museum, and although they probably get many, many authentication requests, only once in a blue moon do they hit the jackpot.

Dutch art collector Dirk Hannema thought his "Le Blute-Fin" (AP Photo/Fundatie de Zwolle, click to enlarge) was a real van Gogh -- he thought so for 35 years. And finally, for the first time since 1995, the VGM has authenticated a never-before-catalogued van Gogh. Louis van Tilborgh, research curator at the VGM, did the honors. According to the Associated Press article published today, van Tilborgh cites the stamp on the back of the canvas, from a Paris art store Vincent frequented, and the types of pigments used in the painting as evidence for authenticity. Research on pigments is relatively new business, new enough that a forger working long enough ago for Hannema to acquire the painting wouldn't have known what to fake. Van Tilborgh dates the painting to Vincent's Paris period and more specifically to the year 1886. This is not a surprise, for not only does the painting show a Parisian landmark -- the Blute-Fin windmill in Montmartre -- but Vincent painted this windmill several times. This image of "Le Moulin de Blute-Fin" (F273), for instance, is dated to summer 1886. The one closest in composition to the "new" painting is this one (F271),which (alas) was destroyed by fire in 1967. The big difference between the latter painting and the new picture, though, is the amount of figures. Rather uncharacteristically for van Gogh's work, especially at this point, the stairway in the new painting is crowded with people. Not only that, but the people are shown closer in than was typical for him: compare for instance this painting (F272, in the Art Institute of Chicago),where the figures on the observation deck of the Blute-Fin are standing at some distance from the artist. In the 'new' painting, no doubt it was the figures that kept this canvas in the "doubtful" category for so long, until the technology evolved for the examination of the pigments. In fact, while I don't claim to be nearly the expert as the VGM curators, if you'd shown me this picture and asked "Real? Not real?" I would have voted "Not Real" because of the figures.

So what was Le Blute-Fin? In Vincent's day, three windmills still stood on the hill of Montmartre, nostalgic leftovers from the days when the landscape was peppered with them. One of them was actually nicknamed the Peppermill (aka the Debray), then there was le Radet and le Blute-Fin. Vincent's early Paris canvases show many views of Montmartre and his new home, but as a Dutchman, no doubt he had a particular attraction to the windmills. Le Blute-Fin was built in 1622 and was perhaps better known in Vincent's day as "Le Moulin de la Galette," a nickname it shared with Le Radet. Together these two windmills anchored the famous dance-hall painted by Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Vincent himself [van Gogh only painted the exterior though]. The Blute-Fin was also noteworthy for its "point de vue," its panoramic view down to Paris from its belvedere, or observation deck. In the foreground of Vincent's 'new' picture we probably see a stand for buying a beer or lemonade, and the figures crowding the stairs are beautifully dressed in seemingly Sunday best, enjoying a walk on a pleasant afternoon.

The new van Gogh is on view at the Fundatie de Zwolle in Zwolle, the Netherlands.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Snowy Day

No snow on the ground here in Tampa Bay, of course, but since much of the rest of the country -- including my hometown in Georgia -- has at least a few inches lying around, seems a good time to introduce one of van Gogh's rare snowscapes. "Snowy Landscape with Arles in the Background" (click image to enlarge) dates from late February or early March 1888, just after Vincent arrived in Arles. He'd stepped off the train on February 20th to a surprising sight: about 12 inches of snow covering the Provençal landscape. The irony? Well, firstly that Arles rarely saw that kind of snowfall, and secondly, that van Gogh had come south seeking the sun and a warmer climate. In a letter to Theo after his arrival, he expressed surprise at the weather but then added optimistically that the snow-blanketed landscape reminded him of some Japanese prints.

"Snowy Landscape" shows a view of Arles that Vincent would later depict in summer: the city's skyline distant on the horizon, a vast, flat field in between. We can spot the towers of the various churches, including Saint-Trophime, as well as smokestacks of the PLM railway workshops. Appropriately for the wintry day, no figures can be seen, although footprints dot the snow...the artist's own? The composition of this painting recalls seventeenth-century Dutch landscape painters such as Jacob van Ruisdael, whose work Vincent admired, although Ruisdael's landscapes tend to show a more expansive sky. Lest we think this snowy landscape is too melancholy, van Gogh includes hints of green, suggesting some plants have survived the snowfall and wait eagerly for spring. Just like Vincent himself must have done!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Casting "Sunflowers"

"What if your book was made into a movie? Who would you want to play Vincent and Rachel?"

I've been asked that many times since "Sunflowers" was released, and believe me, I've thought about it. "Daniel Craig for Vincent," I say without hesitation, "you know, James Bond." If my listener is a woman, the reaction is always "Ohhhh" with an appreciative smile and nod. Those ice-blue eyes, the craggy face filled with character...oh yeah. He's the right age, and before he became Bond he was an intense indie-film actor. He could do it. He'd be perfect. He even looks good with a beard--here he is in "The Golden Compass."

Rachel is harder. I'd want a French actress in my imaginary movie, and so far I hadn't found just the right one. But last week I caught the charming film "Faubourg 36" on cable, and debut actress Nora Arnezeder (pictured) seems ideal for Rachel. She's a little taller than I've imagined, and currently a blonde, but in "Faubourg 36" she had the vulnerability, inner strength, and sense of innocent-in-the-big-city that would totally fit the character.

What do *you* think of these two? Have your own ideas?

Gogh-ing to the Nelson-Atkins

The Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City -- a gem of a museum with a very fine collection -- just received quite a 75th birthday present: 400 new artworks as gifts from some of its patrons. Among them: a treasure trove of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist pieces donated by Henry and Marion Bloch, longtime friends of the museum (Henry Bloch as in founder of H&R Block). The Bloch donation includes works by Manet, Monet, Cézanne, Degas, and van Gogh. The van Gogh in question is pictured here -- "Restaurant Rispal at Asnières," dating from 1887 and Vincent's Paris period. It is one of a series that van Gogh did at the suburb of Asnières and shows the influence of Divisionism and his friend Paul Signac. This painting was included in the landmark "Van Gogh à Paris" exhibition held at the Musée d'Orsay in 1988.

The Nelson-Atkins already owns two van Goghs: "Head of a Young Peasant" from 1885 and Vincent's time in Nuenen, and "Olive Grove" from 1889 and his time in Saint-Rémy. (The Nelson-Atkins "Olive Grove" is one of my favorites of the olive tree series.) Congratulations to the Nelson-Atkins on 75 years of excellence and on their splendid new acquisitions.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Auction Results

For those dying to know what happened with the two van Gogh works on paper up for auction last night at Christie's London..."The Iron Mill in The Hague" (1882) sold for 505,250 British pounds ($803,348) and "Six Pines Near the Enclosure Wall" (1889) sold for 769,250 British pounds ($1,223,108), including the buyer's premium. Both fell within estimate, "Six Pines" on the high end. Congratulations to the (I'm sure) happy new owners!

Monday, February 1, 2010

Up for Auction

Christie's London has its Impressionist/Modern Evening Sale tomorrow night, Feb 2nd, and there are two van Gogh works on paper up for grabs.Lot 11 is a charcoal and pencil drawing done during Vincent's time at the asylum of Saint-Remy, "Six pines near the enclosure wall" (F1564 in the de la Faille catalogue). More specifically, this drawing is conventionally dated to a period after one of Vincent's attacks when he was still unwilling to leave the walls of the asylum to paint. Instead he did drawings inside the asylum's walled garden. The provenance can be traced back to Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, and the estimate is 600,000-800,000 British pounds.

Lot 17 is of historical interest because, dating to June 1882 and Vincent's time in The Hague, it's one of his earlier works. "The Iron Mill in The Hague" (F926) is gouache, watercolor, wash, pen and ink, and pencil on paper and has an estimate of 450,000-550,000 British pounds.

Thanks to former van Gogh seminar student Michelle for letting me know about this auction!!