Notebook: Recent van Gogh discovery shows the human side of a legend

By Max Radwin, Daily Fine Arts Editor
Published September 23, 2013

On Sept. 16, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam unveiled a painting recently confirmed to be an authentic Vincent van Gogh.

The piece — a landscape titled Sunset at Montmajour, (1888) — had been purchased in 1908 by Christian Nicolai Mustad, a Norwegian collector who, after being told that it was not an original, kept the work in his attic for several years.

After Mustad died in 1970, the piece fell into the hands of an anonymous collector, where it was rejected from museums on numerous occasions. Monday, to the delight of this anonymous owner, it was confirmed as a real and authentic van Gogh painting.

Of course, art historical research required time to confirm such things.

But that much time? Why did it take so long for the art world to confirm this work’s authenticity?

Sure, there are (very specific) references to the painting in van Gogh’s letters to his brother, Theo. Sure, the painting had “180” written on it — its number in Theo van Gogh’s collection. And sure, a truly expert art historian should have been able to distinguish between the phony and the genuine with relative ease. But such evidence doesn’t suffice for the art world when the work in question doesn’t live up to its perceptions of the artist allegedly responsible.

That is, not until scientists matched the paints in Montmajour — a cobalt blue specifically, which van Gogh started using after 1887 — with the paint from his 1881 palette. Now all the other evidence makes sense. Then again, all evidence makes sense when it’s examined retroactively.

The art world seemingly stalled in its acceptance of Montmajour’s authenticity, quite possibly because, as many art critics have concluded, it just isn’t that good.

Montmajour was painted in 1888, the same year that van Gogh painted Bedroom in Arles, The Night Café and Sunflowers. It was also the year he sent some of his best self-portraits to Paul Gauguin. This painting simply doesn’t hold a severed ear to those works.

Van Gogh’s production in 1888 was perhaps more sporadic in quality than one would have previously suspected. Jonathan Jones of the The Guardian put it best in his harsh, albeit fair, analysis of Montmajour: “… The clogged colours and clumsy composition show his originality struggling to overcome influence, tradition and nerves … Are they really, really sure it's not a fake? The science is unquestionable, I suppose.”

It’s interesting to think that van Gogh, even when mastering his own masters — Delacroix, Daumier, Hiroshige (here, apparently, Millet) — he still struggled to tame his influences and produce something born out of Western art traditions, yet equally combative to those styles. Considering that van Gogh completed over 900 paintings, it was bound to happen with a few of his projects. But still, this work makes one of the most human painters that much more human, and that much more mortal.

Even if Sunset at Montmajour is a dud, which is still very much up for debate, art lovers and collectors alike can be happy knowing that the piece still expands the oeuvre of one of history's greatest and most fascinating painters, and will sell like one too.