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Vincent Van Gogh

Variant vindicated? Van Gogh Museum defends its “Garden of St Paul’s”

Van Gogh fakes controversy continues

The Van Gogh Museum has rebutted claims that one of its paintings is a fake, and at the same time has revealed a little more about Vincent’s working methods. Curator Louis van Tilborgh, who has authenticated “The garden of St Paul’s hospital”, says that the picture’s critics have failed to accept that Van Gogh was doing a more painstaking version in his studio of a slightly earlier painting, which is now at the Folkwang Museum in Essen. In the Amsterdam picture, the artist was striving for a more carefully worked-out manner of painting. “This did not fit in with the traditional, cherished opinion of the spontaneous painter working out of doors,” Mr van Tilborgh explained.

Among those who branded “The garden of St Paul’s hospital” as a fake was the Van Gogh Museum’s own founder, Vincent Willem van Gogh, nephew of the artist. In 1954 the painting had been given to him by the son of Dr Paul Gachet, but relations between the two quickly soured and V.W. van Gogh denounced the donation as a fake. Dr Jan Hulsker, author of The new complete Van Gogh, questioned the picture three years ago and more recently it has been strongly rejected by Gachet critic Benoît Landais. Although the Van Gogh Museum has long believed that its picture is an authentic, second version of the Essen work, it was decided to subject it to a detailed examination in preparation for the current exhibition on the Gachet collection.

Research on provenance has established that a small watercolour copy of the painting was made by one of Dr Gachet’s friends in around 1900-1903. If the Amsterdam painting goes back this far, then it would be very early for a fake, since Van Gogh was not yet fetching high prices. On examination the canvas shows that it conforms to the type which Van Gogh used in St-Rémy, as does the way it was stretched and remounted.

Eleven tiny paint samples from the picture confirmed that all the pigments are consistent with a late nineteenth-century palette, and (with one exception) they are known to have been used by Van Gogh. The organic red pigment used was shown to have discoloured severely under the influence of light, creating unsatisfactory colour effects which have disturbed some critics. A microscopic examination of cross sections of the paint samples revealed up to eleven layers, sometimes applied wet-on-wet, and this again is consistent with Van Gogh’s working method.

Finally, Mr van Tilborgh claims to have found evidence that the Amsterdam picture is referred to in Van Gogh’s letters. The curator argues that a passage in a letter of 7 December 1889 has been misunderstood, and that it refers to the museum’s “variant”. Mr van Tilborgh concludes that the Amsterdam painting is indeed a second version of the October-November 1889 picture now at Essen, and that it was done in the studio, a few days or weeks later. Although the artist was striving to improve on his original, Mr van Tilborgh admits that the studio variant is “not equally successful”. Both pictures are exhibited together in the current Gachet exhibition, “Cézanne to Van Gogh” (until 5 December).

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Variant vindicated?'