Because art historians have cataloged the painter’s oeuvre extensively, “[i]t’s quite rare for a new work to be attributed to [him],” says Emilie Gordenker, director of the Van Gogh Museum, in a statement.
So, when a Dutch family approached the museum and asked staff to take a look at an unsigned drawing, it came as “a big surprise” that the sketch was a clearly identifiable work by van Gogh, senior researcher Teio Meenendorp tells Reuters.
The scholar, who led the charge to authenticate the work, published his findings in the October issue of the Burlington magazine. Now, reports Mike Corder for the Associated Press (AP), the drawing is on view at the Amsterdam museum, where it’s being shown publicly for the very first time.
A preparatory sketch for the larger 1882 drawing Worn Out, the newly attributed work depicts an elderly man in a scruffy suit seated in a chair, bent over with his head in his hands.
Van Gogh used a carpenter’s pencil to draw the scene on a 19- by 12-inch sheaf of watercolor paper. He finished off lighter parts of the composition by rubbing pellets of bread on the coarse surface, then applied a fixative made from milk and water to better emphasize the dark pencil strokes, reports Mark Brown for the Guardian.
Experts dated the picture with unusual accuracy to the end of November 1882, when van Gogh detailed Worn Out’s development in letters to his brother Theo and fellow artist Anthon van Rappard. The Impressionist was “obviously proud” of the composition, making a lithograph of the scene just a few days later, notes the Art Newspaper’s Martin Bailey.
“Today and yesterday I drew two figures of an old man with his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands,” wrote van Gogh to his brother in 1882. “... Perhaps I’ll do a lithograph of it. What a fine sight an old working man makes, in his patched bombazine suit with his bald head.”
Per the Art Newspaper, the artist intended to use Worn Out and other English-titled works to seek employment at a British publication, but he either failed to follow through on this idea or had his work rejected.
Thanks to the newly discovered drawing, which has been held in a private collection in the Netherlands since about 1910, viewers can trace how van Gogh’s composition progressed from an early sketch to its final form as a lithograph. That fact alone makes the piece a “stunning contribution” to van Gogh’s oeuvre, Meenendorp tells the Art Newspaper.
In late 1882, van Gogh was just 29 years old. He was living in the Hague with Clasina Maria “Sien” Hoornik, a pregnant sex worker who had previously been homeless. (The painter was not the child’s father.) She modeled for a series of drawings, including the lithograph Sorrow (1882).
At this early stage in his career, van Gogh could only afford to hire Hoornik and other destitute models, offering “perhaps 10 cents and some coffee” as compensation, according to the Guardian. For Worn Out, the artist employed one of his favorite models, an elderly man named Adrianus Jacobus Zuyderland who boasted distinctive sideburns (and who appears in at least 40 of van Gogh’s sketches from this period).
Van Gogh would go on to have an immensely productive creative career, though he remained largely unacknowledged during his lifetime. After years of reckoning with severe mental illnesses, the artist died destitute in 1890 at age 37, possibly by suicide.
Just two months before his death, van Gogh revisited Worn Out. While living in an asylum near Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France, the artist used his old lithograph as the basis for a new painting: At Eternity’s Gate (1890). Here, the old man’s suit is rendered in pale blues that contrast with his tufts of white hair and the crackling orange fire next to his chair.
The Impressionist had long imbued this scene with existential meaning, so it’s perhaps fitting that he selected it to paint at a time of great distress and uncertainty. Eight years prior, a younger van Gogh had ruminated in letters to Theo about the symbolism of his subject:
[I]t seems to me that one of the strongest pieces of evidence for the existence of “something on high,” ... namely in the existence of a God and an eternity, is the unutterably moving quality that there can be in the expression of an old man like that ... as he sits so quietly in the corner of his hearth.