A number of years ago, I paid a visit to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
At that time I was a reporter, producer and presenter for Radio Netherlands International. The museum had just announced the discovery of a new Van Gogh, and I was on my way to get a first look.
The curator was visibly excited to share his find with the world. So-called “new” Van Gogh’s had popped up now and then, but most of them turned out to be poor imitations or brilliant forgeries. This time around, the authenticity was not in doubt. Why? Because the actual painting was invisible.
As I walked down the climate controlled basement, I saw canvas after canvas radiating with vibrant colors. Some of them were in the process of being restored. Others were carefully wrapped up, ready to go on loan to a museum abroad. Then we stopped at what looked like a huge file cabinet with wide drawers.
“This is it,” said the young curator, as he opened one of the drawers. “Here’s our discovery. It is a portrait of an unknown woman.”
“I don’t understand,” I said. “All I see is a painting of a Patch of Grass.”
The broad brush strokes of vivid green seemed to be sculpted onto the canvas, making this magnificent meadow an almost three-dimensional work of art.
The curator smiled and said: “That’s because you can’t see the portrait. Van Gogh often re-used his old canvases to save money. The painting you’re looking at right now was painted over the image of the woman. Let me show you what the X-ray revealed.
A HIDDEN MASTERPIECE
We believe the painting underneath was made in 1884 or 1885, during a period in which Van Gogh painted several portraits of peasants in the Dutch village of Nuenen.
The colors are kind of gloomy, certainly compared to the work of Impressionists, and that’s probably why Vincent decided to paint a brighter and more commercial scene over it when we was in Paris. As many as one-third of his paintings may conceal earlier works.”
In 2008, researchers used a newer technique to penetrate the layers of paint, revealing more details and color of the unknown woman hidden underneath the green grass.
In March of 2012, the Philadelphia Museum of Art had some 40 Van Gogh’s on display at their “Van Gogh Up Close” exhibition. I don’t think “A Patch of Grass” has made it to the U.S. but a work like “Undergrowth With Two Figures” from 1890 is part of the exhibit. Looking at it, one can almost feel the waves of wind whispering in the weeds.
MY U.S. TELEVISION DEBUT
The catalogue for the exhibition was in part funded by the Netherland-America foundation and NBC 10 provides promotional support.
As part of that promotion, Eileen Matthews produced the documentary “Van Gogh Up Close” which aired on March 17. Lori Wilson was the narrator, and you can hear me as the voice of Van Gogh, reading quotes from some of the many letters he wrote.
NBC wanted me to add some authenticity to this production and that made for an interesting challenge because we don’t really know what Van Gogh sounded like. He was born in the South of Holland and at age 20, he moved to London to work for an art dealer. Some scholars believe these were the happiest days of his life.
Van Gogh returned to England for work as a supply teacher in a small boarding school and later he became a missionary’s assistant. This leads me to believe that he might have spoken English with Dutch-British accent.
Here is part of a letter Van Gogh wrote in 1881 to his brother Theo who was an art dealer. These are the actual words Vincent wrote:
[audio:http://www.nethervoice.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/Letter-to-Theo-Dutch.mp3|titles=Van Gogh’s Letter to Theo in Dutch read by Paul Strikwerda]
Listen to the same letter in English:
[audio:http://www.nethervoice.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/Letter-to-Theo-English.mp3|titles=Van Gogh’s letter to Theo in English read by Paul Strikwerda]
Talking to non-Dutch speakers, one thing always comes up when discussing Van Gogh. Nobody seems to know how to correctly pronounce his last name. Is it “Van Goff” or “Van Goh”?
The correct answer: neither.
If you wish to impress your friends and family, here’s how you do it:
[audio:http://www.nethervoice.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/Untitled.mp3|titles=Dutch pronunciation Vincent Van Gogh]
A NEW DISCOVERY?
Even today, people claim to have found new masterpieces by van Gogh. On Wednesday March 14th, Joshua Tree resident Michael Wilson announced he had discovered a long-lost painting depicting beech trees at sunset. He bought it for $50 in a junk shop. If the painting turns out to be genuine, it could be appraised at approximately $200 million.
During his lifetime, Van Gogh only sold one oil painting. He lived and died in poverty, but he knew he was leaving an extraordinary legacy.
He once said:
“I can’t change the fact that my paintings don’t sell, but the time will come when people will recognize that they are worth more than the value of the paints used in the picture.”
Well, that’s certainly one of the most prophetic understatements in the history of art. Especially if you take into consideration that some owners of a real Van Gogh might actually have purchased two pictures for the price of one!
Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice
PS Artsy.com is a terrific online resource for all things Vincent Van Gogh. Click on this link to get to his page.