NGV Director Gerard Vaughan today outlined the approach the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam will adopt in analysing the NGV’s Van Gogh painting, Head of a Man 1886.
Dr Vaughan recently met with senior research scholars at the Van Gogh Museum, where the painting has just arrived after closure of the UK exhibition to which it had been loaned.
Van Gogh Museum experts have confirmed that their approach to the painting will consist of three phases:
1. Scientific analysis. This involves a program of analysis of materials, canvas, ground and paint. Microscopic slices of paint and ground layers will be required and instrumental work using non destructive techniques will be undertaken using standard and well-tested conservation techniques. This work can provide important answers on paint composition, date, and can be used comparatively. Samples will be taken by the Van Gogh Museum and will be analysed by the Institute of Dutch Cultural Heritage, which regularly undertakes scientific analysis on behalf of major Dutch museums.
2. X-ray techniques. The canvas will only be truly visible under radiograph, which can then provide clues about painting construction and style.
3. Visual connoisseurship. This involves expert comparison with other works from similar time and place, and also Van Gogh’s earlier works, both under microscope and by making observations on general style and technique.
Scholars at the Van Gogh Museum believe this is an excellent time to be undertaking the work, as next year they are publishing a special catalogue of Van Gogh’s Paris Period paintings, and are thus heavily focussed on the period early 1886 – early 1888. The Museum has also just held a special technical exhibition of his pre- Impressionist influenced sombre paintings, which have been found to contain strong primary colours.
The Museum is particularly interested in the ground layer of the work, and will compare its composition with others they have examined.
Scholars will also devote attention to the subject of the painting. Many suggestions have been put forward, including that the subject could be Van Gogh’s friend, Meyer de Haan. Views diverge on this and other possible subjects, and period photos will be examined to draw closer to the truth.
Dr Vaughan said: “We continue to believe Head of a Man is by Van Gogh, as there is much evidence in support and to date, insufficient evidence to the contrary in the criticisms put forward. So many scholars have accepted the paintings as authentic. However we have a completely open mind on the issue, and are committed to getting to the truth of the matter in regard to the painting. We look forward to this important collaboration with the Van Gogh Museum.”
The Museum’s analysis of Head of a Man is expected to take some time, perhaps months.
The NGV looks forward to communicating the results of the work publicly as soon as they are available.
Background to Van Gogh’s Head of a Man 1886.
The NGV acquired this work from the French and British Contemporary Art exhibition which toured Australia in 1939-40.
The provenance for the painting is: Abels Gallery, Cologne by 1928; Frederik Muller (auction), Amsterdam, 13 June 1933, lot 17; Gertude Stein Gallery, Paris, by 1937; Lieutenant Victor Alexander Cazalet, Cranbrook, Kentn and London, 1939; National Gallery of Victoria (funded by Felton Bequest), 1940.
The NGV’s attempts to trace the provenance of this picture back earlier than 1928 have been hindered by the fact that, as the van Gogh and Cezanne scholar Walter Feilchenfeldt informed the NGV in 1991, the files of Cologne’s Abels Gallery were destroyed during World War II.
NGV’s painting is van Gogh’s only known horizontal portrait. However, there is evidence that the canvas (which has been mounted on plywood) has been trimmed on all sides, especially along the lower edge where the collar is cut off in mid brush-stroke. It is therefore not impossible that the work was originally in a vertical format, and included more of the torso.
It is difficult to determine whether our painting is referred to in van Gogh’s letters or not, as surviving letters from 1886 and 1887 refer to the artist’s painting a number of unspecified portraits. For example, Letter 459a to Livens states “I lately did two heads which I dare say are better in light and colour than those I did before”.
In correspondence with the Gallery in 1992, Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov noted of our painting, that “Its style displays the late 1886 ‘Realist Style’ which many of his still lifes and landscapes during the second half of that year attest to”. She also referred to Theo van Gogh’s letters to his mother of early 1887. As Jan Hulsker notes in The New Complete van Gogh 1996, “Theo wrote to his mother on January 12, 1887: ‘He seems to be setting himself to doing portraits’ and again on February 28: ‘He has painted a couple of portraits which have turned out well’. ” (p. 266).
Since van Gogh’s letters from Paris are patchy (his correspondence with Theo ceasing, of course, during van Gogh’s two years in Paris since the brothers were then located in the same city), there are many works from this period that are not mentioned in the surviving Parisian correspondence. Of the hundreds of drawings and paintings produced by van Gogh in Paris between March 1886 and February 1888 (Hulsker 1019-1356), Hulsker’s concordance of “Van Gogh’s Works as mentioned in his letters” (Hulsker, pp. 492-497) relates only 16 works back to the surviving correspondence.
The NGV’s painting has been accepted by Hulsker (no. 1201), as by every catalogue raisonné of van Gogh’s paintings since J. B. de la Faille, L’Oeuvre de Vincent van Gogh, Paris, 1928, no. F209.
This work was purchased in 1940 for 2,196 Australian pounds. The NGV does not release current valuations of works in the collection.
The NGV’s painting is certainly a most accomplished work. There are other equally accomplished works produced by van Gogh during the Parisian period, as was demonstrated by Françoise Cachin’s and Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov’s great exhibition Van Gogh à Paris (Musée d’Orsay 1988. One thinks in particular of “Agostina Segatori au café du Tambourin” (Rijksmuseum Vincent Van Gogh), Portrait de l’artiste par lui-même, de trois quarts vers la gauche (Art Institute of Chicago), or indeed the Romans parisiens (private collection). The quality of our painting is why scholars date it to late 1886/early 1887.