Somehow, short though his existence was, there always seems to be more to discover about the life and art of Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890). The past week has brought two revelations about the hot and feverishly busy summer of 1888, during which Vincent created some of his greatest work.
Last week, the journalist and art historian Martin Bailey revealed a color image of an important painting -- “Six Sunflowers” -- which was totally destroyed in 1945 in a bombing raid on Japan.
This photograph, which Bailey unearthed in the course of his fine new book on the Sunflower paintings, gives us some notion at least of one of Vincent’s most chromatically audacious pictures: yellow flowers on a deep blue background standing in a green vase on a purple table. Even in this 68-year-old reproduction, it zings.
Now, even more sensationally, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has unveiled a previously unknown oil painting. “Sunset at Montmajour” was painted during Van Gogh’s sojourn in the southern French city of Arles, and can be pinpointed to the very day in was painted. It provides an intriguing glimpse into the artist’s imagination.
The Van Gogh Museum says that this is the work that the painter described in a letter to his brother Theo of July 5, 1888, mentioning that he had done it the previous day.
He described “ a stony heath where very small, twisted oaks grow, in the background a ruin on the hill.” The latter was the medieval Abbey of Montmajour, a place to which Vincent often walked (later in the year in the company of Paul Gauguin). This new painting looks to be a fine example of Van Gogh’s Arles period.
There are signs in that letter of how Vincent -- who tended to make multiple and sometimes unexpected connections with everything he saw -- was daydreaming as he looked at this landscape. He linked the scenery with the Middle Ages.
“You wouldn’t have been at all surprised to see knights and ladies suddenly appear, returning from hunting with hawks,” he writes.
A few days later Vincent returned to the same place, this time with one of his few friends in Arles, a second lieutenant from the army garrison. Vincent related how they clambered around the old garden and stole some figs. Then he made a most interesting comparison: the place put him in mind, he wrote, of a novel by Zola, “The Sin of Father Mouret.”
Van Gogh was a lonely individual, and an omnivorous reader. His mind was full of the books he read, and these were reflected in what he painted -- probably more often than we can ever know.
Who would guess, for example, that his picture of a local stage coach was triggered by a connection with a comic novel by Alphonse Daudet -- unless, that is, Van Gogh had happened to tell us about it, via a letter to his brother?
The Zola novel is a particularly intriguing reference, because it is a weird fantasy mingling sex, death, sin and poisoned flowers, all set in an ancient, overgrown Provencal garden and culminating in ear amputation.
Six months later, of course, Vincent was to cut off part of his own ear, and present it to a prostitute at a local brothel. So it is interesting that Zola’s lurid story was running through his mind as he looked at the local countryside.
The new picture -- and the image of the lost “Sunflowers” -- are a reminder of what an astonishing amount Van Gogh achieved in a few months that summer of 1888; and also that there were things going on in the depths of his mind that we can only guess at.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. His books include “The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
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