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After 30 Years of Doubt, a Painting of Poppies Is Authenticated as a van Gogh

New imaging technology has helped clarify lingering questions about the artwork, which will be put back on display at a Connecticut museum

"Vase with Poppies" c. 1886 is authenticated (Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art)
smithsonian.com

In 1957, a private collector bequeathed a trove of Impressionist works to the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut—among them a painting of a vase of vibrant red poppies, believed to be a Vincent van Gogh. By 1990, the authenticity of the artwork had been called into question, and it was ferreted into storage. Now, ending nearly 30 years of speculation, Dutch experts have verified “Vase With Poppies” as an original van Gogh, according to the Associated Press.

There are a number of reasons doubts swirled over the work’s provenance. For one, Anne Parrish Titzell, the writer who gifted “Vase With Poppies” to the Wadsworth Atheneum, was not familiar to museum staff as a collector.

“We didn’t know who she was,” Thomas Loughman, the Wadsworth Atheneum’s director and CEO, tells Susan Dunne of the Hartford Courant. “But the things she gave us! Renoir’s portrait of ‘Monet Painting in his Garden in Argenteuil.’ Holy smokes! That is a major picture.”

Then, in 1976, eminent art historian Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov questioned the van Gogh attribution of the “Vase With Poppies.” Some 14 years later, scholar Walter Feilchenfeldt travelled to the Wadsworth Atheneum to investigate his suspicions of another of its purported van Goghs—a self-portrait painted in 1887—and while he was there, he echoed existing concerns about “Vase With Poppies.” While further research pointed to the self-portrait as being a true van Gogh, because doubts persisted about the authenticity, the museum took “Vase With Poppies off display and into archival storage.

In light of modern advances in imaging technology, however, Wadsworth Atheneum staff recently decided to take another look at the painting. According to a press release from the museum, the Wadsworth conservation lab recently acquired new imaging equipment, and “[d]igital x-ray and advanced infrared reflectograms revealed with greater clarity than ever before the presence of an earlier painting beneath the current composition.” That underpainting appears to be another self-portrait; Loughman tells New England Public Radio’s Ray Hardman that experts could make out “the outline of an ear.”

The museum staff decided to send “Vase With Poppies” to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam for further inspection. Experts there analyzed the work’s paint, material and style and concluded that it is indeed a van Gogh, one that falls in line with the paintings he made not long after moving from Antwerp to Paris in 1886.

In the City of Lights, van Gogh attended the eighth Impressionist Exhibition, where he viewed paintings by the likes of Monet and Pissarro. He also befriended the post-Impressionists Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Paul Gauguin, who introduced him to new modes of French painting. During this transformative period, van Gogh’s oeuvre began to shift; in place of the somber depictions of peasant life that he painted while living in the Netherlands, the artist experimented with rendering subjects like fruit and flowers in colorful, Impressionist-style brushstrokes. In fact, van Gogh mentioned that he had been painting poppies in an 1886 letter to fellow artist Horace M. Livens.

“And now for what regards what I myself have been doing, I have lacked money for paying models else I had entirely given myself to figure painting,” van Gogh wrote. “But I have made a series of color studies in painting, simply flowers, red poppies, blue corn flowers and myosotys, white and rose roses, yellow chrysanthemum-seeking oppositions of blue with orange, red and green, yellow and violet seeking les tons rompus et neutres to harmonize brutal extremes. Trying to render intense colour and not a grey harmony.”

Now that “Vase with Poppies” has finally been authenticated, it will go back on display at the Wadsworth Atheneum in April, in time for its 38th annual “Fine Art & Flowers” show, which displays floral arrangements and designs inspired by the museum’s collection.

Louis van Tilborgh, senior Researcher and the Van Gogh Museum, notes that the recent investigation into the origins of “Vase With Flowers” suggests that light can be shed on other “floaters”—works that can have been attributed to van Gogh, but whose authenticity remains uncertain. “[O]ne can say that slowly but surely,” Tilborgh adds, “real progress is being made in Van Gogh studies.”

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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