• gerard van weyenbergh

Fake Van Gogh ? Again and again

The Millet-Van Gogh exhibition, which took place from September 1998 to January 1999, gave Benoit Landais, self-proclaimed specialist of the Dutch painter, the opportunity to assert that two canvases are coarse fakes.

In the "Opinions" section of November 19, 1998, Le Monde published a letter from Landais which affirms that two canvases representing harvesters are forgeries probably executed by artist Claude-Emile Schuffenecker.

According to him, the first study of Harvest, entrusted by the Israel Museum, is "rough, dry, and flat." The second, on loan from the Toledo Museum of Art (Ohio), shows a figure with a sluggish figure and shoulders out of proportion.

However, Schuffenecker had great difficulty painting silhouettes and hands while the lines of the whole are atypical.

These two paintings do not come from the collection of the widow of Vincent's brother. The Jerusalem Harvest is reputed to have been painted by VanGogh in June 1888 in Arles. Vincent sent Emile Bernard two drawings corresponding to this view, and one of them fell into the hands of Amédée Schuffenecker, brother of Claude-Emile. The painting uses some lines of this sketch and includes two poorly planted houses that are not in this one.

Benoit Landais points out that the Harvester of Toledo's case is also intriguing because the canvas has had a replica today rejected. Toledo's work is not related to Van Gogh's paintings from Arles and would correspond more to the Auvers period. The church, the factory chimney, and the smoke from the train seem to be taken from the painter's Arlésienne Harvest, which belonged to the Schuffenecker brothers and is now kept by the Rodin Museum.

The view of the city of Arles from the east is notably incompatible with the presence of the Alpilles in the background, the wheat appears to be cut only on a small area next to the figure, but we have already drawn around ten millstones, something unthinkable since we do not aggregate the wheat before threshing it in conical millstones designed to withstand bad weather, says Landais.

In support of his analysis, he cites a letter from Van Gogh of June 21, 1888 in which the painter indicates that the field had changed appearance following torrential rains for two days and that the wheat had to be brought in.

Van Gogh never mentioned these two paintings in his letters, while the Musée d'Orsay catalog indicates that the artist produced no less than ten paintings between June 13 and 20, which seems very excessive for Landais who recalls that on the 20th, the day of the flood, Van Gogh probably had to put his brushes away.

Landais relies on a letter from the painter to Emile Bernard in which he specified that he was working on seven wheat studies.

"About fifteen sketches and drawings identify these seven canvases and there will be no others," said Landais, sure of his demonstration.

Scientific observation of works of art and their laboratory analyzes have revealed some of the secrets of artists from past centuries.

These analyzes made it possible to make observations such as those concerning the rock paintings of the cave of Niaux.

It was believed that artists of the Magdalenian era used natural and raw dyes. However, they had in fact created their colors, in particular red and black, by using hematite and manganese oxide which they linked to organic matter of animal or plant origin. They therefore learned very early on to extract the nuances of iron oxides and heat them to obtain appropriate colors.

The men of prehistory, then the Egyptians and the Greeks excelled in the art of grinding pigments. We were able to discover the secrets of the manufacture of ancient ceramics in the laboratory by noting that the black glaze of Greek pottery was produced based on alumina, potassium, and iron.

Rembrandt's works were analyzed in the Museums of France's research laboratory and determined how he obtained his transparency effects by using instead of white lead a special limestone (lowitt) mixed with walnut oil.

Van Gogh used a poor quality eosin-based rouge, which gradually disappeared from his works. It was found by tracking the bromine that goes into its composition.

We can then better explain the chromatic effects of this artist's paintings, which are no longer the same one hundred years later.

Thus, science has enabled enormous progress, which will be used by restorers searching for the best recipes to restore the works to their original state. Still, certain mysteries have not yet been elucidated, especially in paintings damaged by time.

However, science, combined with the specialist's eye, can be of great help when it comes to avoiding errors in both restoration and expertise. In particular, we were able to lift the veil about works painted by Russian artists Mihaïl Larionov and Natalia Gontcharova, which were supposed to date from 1905.

It was enough to reveal the presence of titanium white, introduced in the production of paintings around 1920, to be convinced that they had been produced after that year in Paris simply because this oxide was not used at all by the artists of the beginning of that century.

© Adrian Darmon