Vintage van Gogh

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Vincent van Gogh was notorious for always being short of money and materials, and it has now been discovered that he resorted to painting on tea towels. Louis van Tilborgh, a curator at the Van Gogh Museum, found that the artist used this unorthodox material for two groups of pictures.

On 16 November 1889, Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo from the asylum at St-Rémy, saying that he had finished his supply of canvas, and needed a further ten metres. The roll did not arrive from Paris until three weeks later.

A detailed examination of two pictures from this period has revealed that Van Gogh painted on tea towel or tablecloth material for The Large Plane Trees (Cleveland Museum of Art) and Wheatfields in a Mountainous Landscape (Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo). The off-white fabric has a grid pattern of tiny red rectangles, which are just visible where the paint is thin. We can only speculate, but ­presumably the tea towels were from the asylum’s kitchen or refectory.

The following June, after Van Gogh had moved to Auvers-sur-Oise, he again ran out of canvas, since he was then painting a picture a day. While awaiting a fresh supply, he used tea towels with a red border woven into them. These were for three paintings: two still-lifes of flowers in a vase (both in private collections) and Corner of Daubigny’s Garden (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam). The artist was staying at the Auberge Ravoux, so the towels may well have come from its bar.

Van Gogh was nearly always dependent on supplies from Theo, and in July 1888 he had written to his brother with yet another request, optimistically pointing out that “a canvas I have covered is worth more than a blank canvas”. Although he may only have sold one painting in his lifetime, Van Gogh would be proved correct after his death. One of the tea towels with a still-life of flowers sold in 2000 for $4.2m.

As well as using these unorthodox supports, Van Gogh also reused canvases by painting on top of earlier pictures. The latest example of this to be revealed by x-radiographs lies beneath the 1889 painting of Ravine, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The Burlington Magazine revealed in their August issue that an earlier picture of wild vegetation lies underneath Ravine.

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