>What We Know of Van Gogh

>Even as I am disappointed to discover that the Pope may not, in fact, be consecrating the Sagrada Familia this autumn [N.B. a couple of very misinformed visitor comments on that post, I must say] in the secular art world there has been yet another interesting discovery of a previously unknown work from an important artist. The Torygraph reports that a work which had previously been derided by many as a fake or a minor piece by a minor artist has now come to be accepted as an early work by Vincent van Gogh. The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has confirmed that the piece, now in the collection of the Museum de Fundatie in the Dutch town of Zwolle, is almost certainly an early work by the Dutch post-impressionist master. This is part of the ongoing effort of the Van Gogh Museum to conduct highly advanced scientific tests, including digital scanning and microscopic analysis, on a number of purported works by Van Gogh to determine their authenticity, as was recently featured on PBS’ Nova: Science Now.

Van Gogh is a figure so well-known for his later, heavy pieces bordering on abstraction, employing the use of thick impasto and palette knife, that a more conventional Impressionist-style view such as this causes a jolt in our perceptions of him. We need to remember that all great artists, be they painters, musicians, or novelists, grow and change over time. Even Pablo Picasso, to the surprise of many not familiar with his work, could draw and paint like an accomplished master of academic realism if he wanted to – the point of course, was that he DIDN’T want to.

Take a look, for example, at Picasso’s “Science and Charity”, now housed in the Museu Picasso in Barcelona, and marvel at the fact that this highly technical piece was painted when Picasso was only 17 years old. This does not seem to be from the same hand that painted the famous “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” in the MoMA Collection in New York just ten years later. Yet Picasso’s early experiences are the foundation for what came later; the two cannot be separated.

In the case of Van Gogh, we are not accustomed to seeing scenes of many figures in the Dutch master’s landscapes and cityscapes. His much-loved “Cafe Terrace at Night” painted in 1888, currently in the collection of the Kröller-Müller Museum in Holland, shows some figures, but they are quite far away from the viewer. The artist has distanced himself – and us – from the people portrayed, which if we want to play pop psychiatrist tells us a bit about Van Gogh himself at this stage in his career.

The newly-attributed painting, “Le Blute-Fin Mill”, was painted two years earlier than the “Cafe Terrace”. Van Gogh arrived in Paris for the first time in 1886, and this view of the Montmartre neighborhood dates from his first year in the French capital. Unlike the “Cafe Terrace”, here we seem to mingle with the crowds, rather than hide from them.

The staircase invites us to come enjoy the view of Paris from the top of the hill. Perhaps we will join the tourists who have climbed the windmill tower for a better vantage point, and along the way admire the beautiful ladies’ gowns. Even the two gentlemen at the bar-cafe at the bottom of the steps create a cheery mood in spite of the overcast skies, dressed in brightly colored coats and tall, polished boots. One gets the sense of people who want to get out and about, see and be seen, perhaps after having been cooped up for a few days because of rain or snow – something that many of my readers on the U.S. East Coast can no doubt appreciate.

For art historians, be they of the professional or armchair variety, the continued advance of technology provides us with exciting times. Just in the past year or so I have reported on discoveries of previously unknown or “lost” works by some of the great Western Old Masters, including Leonardo da Vinci, Velazquez, Rembrandt van Rijn, Titian, and Ribera. Such discoveries fill in our understanding of the development of the artist’s technique and style, leading to a better appreciation of their work.