Category: Discoveries

Not Henry VIII's 'last portrait'

January 16 2014

Image of Not Henry VIII's 'last portrait'

Picture: The Times

A new dendrochronological analysis of the above portrait of Henry VIII at Longleat House has led to some incorrect news reporting. The Mail, for example, reported the following:

The painting was previously thought to be a portrait of the king painted after his death. Now, after thorough scientific examination of the oak, experts believe Henry VIII may have posed for an unknown artist in 1544, three years before his death. The wood is believed to date back to 1529.

The painting has an inscription on it stating that it was painted when the Monarch was aged 54, in the 36th year of his reign, but it was common for information to be placed on later copies.

But a closer look at the inscription showed it had been added at the same time the portrait was created.

Then we have this quote from a Tudor historian:

Elizabeth Norton, an author and historian of the Tudor monarchy, said: 'He died in January 1547 and suffered from ill-health for much of 1546. There aren’t any paintings of him depicted as as old man.

'It may well be the last painting that he posed for.'

Readers even half familiar with Tudor iconography will know, however, that the Longleat picture is merely a (very good, by the look of it) replica of Holbein's best surviving face-on portrait of Henry in Rome,* which can be dated to 1540 and is inscribed as showing the king at the age of 49. In the Rome picture, as in the Longleat replica, Henry is shown wearing the clothes he wore for his marriage to Anne of Cleves in 1539. So it isn't at all possible that the Longleat picture, which is inscribed as showing the king aged 54, is a life portrait.

In fact, Holbein's original portrait of the king in this full-frontal pose, for which Henry must presumably have sat, was the c.1536 mural at Whitehall palace, which was destroyed by fire in 1698, after a laundry maid left some washing too close to a fire. The mural was recorded in 1667 by Remigius van Leemput:

Some years ago I re-created (after many hours on Photoshop) a digital, life-size recreation of Holbein's mural for an exhibition in the Philip Mould gallery guest-curated by Dr David Starkey, called 'Lost Faces'. Contemporary accounts of the original mural reported people 'trembling' in front of it. And when I stood before the replica at full scale I could understand why. For a tudor spectator, Holbein's extraordinary realism, combined with the relatively confined and probably quite gloomy space the mural was in, must have convinced some that they were in the presence of some sort of royal witchcraft. Most people then, of course, would never have seen a work of art on such a scale before, and nor such a good one. 

Finally, contrary to what Elizabeth Norton says, there are indeed portraits which show the king as an older man, as seen in the example below (from the National Portrait Gallery) in which he is shown with what must be one of the blingiest walking sticks in history:

As to the Longleat picture's value, which the newspapers inevitably speculated on, then I would say it comes in at around the level of the Studio of Holbein portrait sold recently at Christie's for £650k. This last picture was one of the first Tudor portraits I researched, and it was fun to find it in the inventories of the Dukes of Hamilton. 

The Longleat story was also in the Times today.

Update - a reader writes:

I have the same reaction to all these portraits of Henry VIII: that was one very, very frightening man!!

Larry's TV debut!

January 6 2014

Image of Larry's TV debut!

Picture: BBC

My colleague here at Philip Mould & Co., Lawrence Hendra (who regular readers will know from his helpful stints looking after AHN when I'm away) made his Antiques Roadshow debut last night. And very good he was too. Check out the ARS' youngest expert (at just 23) here on the BBC iPlayer here at about 30 minutes in.

New Fragonard discovery

January 6 2014

Image of New Fragonard discovery

Picture: Sotheby's

The New York Old Master sales* are now online, and there's a fascinating new Fragonard discovery at Sotheby's. The above nude, painted when Fragonard was evidently influenced by Boucher, has been unseen since the late 18th Century, and was known only by a contemporary drawing of it in a 1776 sale catalogue (below). The estimate is $200,000-$250,000. More details here

*If you're going, I'll see you there!

Update - it made $395k

New Van Dyck discovery

January 5 2014

Video: BBC

Slightly old news this now, but an interesting Van Dyck head study turned up on the Antiques Roadshow recently here in the UK. The picture was first spotted by Fiona Bruce, with whom Philip Mould and I work on 'Fake or Fortune?'. It was much over-painted by a later hand (as sketchy head studies often are), but conservation revealed the original beneath. Full story in the video above.

The picture is one of four head studies relating to Van Dyck's lost painting of 'The Magistrates of Brussels'. Two other studies are in the Ashmolean, here and here, and another was found by the London-based art dealer Fergus Hall.

'Fake or Fortune?' returns"!

December 18 2013

Image of 'Fake or Fortune?' returns"!

Picture: BBC

What better antidote could there be to cold, dark winter evenings than series 3 of 'Fake or Fortune?'. The first of four programmes goes out on Sunday 19th January, BBC1, 6pm. I should be able to tell you the artists involved soon.

New Constable discovered verso

November 28 2013

Image of New Constable discovered verso

Picture: V&A 

The V&A has discovered a sketch (above) by John Constable on the reverse of their Branch Hill Pond, Hampstead. The picture was found when a later re-lining canvas was removed. More here.

New Claude discovery at Christie's

November 7 2013

Image of New Claude discovery at Christie's

Picture: Christie's

Christie's December Old Master sale catalogues are online, and the cover lot for their evening sale is a newly discovered £3m-£5m Claude landscape. The picture was nearly a bargain of the year, having been included (but withdrawn) in a Christie's South Kensington sale earlier this year as 'follower of Claude'. More details in Christie's press release here

The enticing-sleeper-withdrawn-at-the-last-minute thing happens a lot these days. There's a reason for this, and I'll leave to you to figure it out.

Nazi loot extravaganza

November 4 2013

Image of Nazi loot extravaganza

Picture: Focus

Up to 1500 artworks, from Durer to Picasso, stolen by the Nazis and lost since the war have been found in a flat in Munich. From The Guardian:

The works, which would originally have been confiscated as "degenerate art" by the Nazis or taken from Jewish collectors in the 1930s and 1940s, had made their way into the hands of a German art collector, Hildebrand Gurlitt. When Gurlitt died, the artworks were passed down to his son, Cornelius – all without the knowledge of the authorities.

Gurlitt, who had not previously been on the radar of the police, attracted the attention of the customs authorities only after a random cash check during a train journey from Switzerland to Munich in 2010, according to Focus. Further police investigations led to a raid on Gurlitt's flat in Schwabing in spring 2011. Police discovered a vast collection of masterpieces by some of the world's greatest artists.

The artworks are thought to have been stored amid juice cartons and tins of food on homemade shelves in a darkened room. Since their seizure, they have been stored in a safe customs building outside Munich, where the art historian Meike Hoffmann, from Berlin university, has been assessing their precise origin and value. When contacted by the Guardian, Hoffmann said she was under an obligation to maintain secrecy and would not be able to comment on the Focus report until Monday.

Very weird that the German police have know about this since 2011, but have not made a squeak since. You can see the original story in Focus, in German, here. You can see Godfrey Barker discuss the discovery here, and a shot of the unassuming flat where the pictures were found here. There's an ecellent interview with Anne Webber from the Commission for Looted Art in Europe on the Today programme here, at 1hr 22 mins in. Anne rightly says that the police's two and half year delay in publishing the list of looted pictures is almost as big a story as the discovery itself. She says that there is a 'culture of secrecy' in that part of Germany when it comes to Nazi loot. Munich, of course, was where the Nazi party began.

Update - a reader writes:

What one wonders of course is precisely what was going on with that trove of art.  

The non owner who has held it is a recluse but realized about USD 1.2 million from one sale in recent years.  More than he appears to spend in a decade.  And there were other sales.

Was this being held to finance a nefarious purpose or is that just a plot for the next Michael Fassbender film.

Of course perhaps it is just further proof to the remaining deniers of what happened in Europe seventy years ago.

Update II - Catherine Hickley has more information at Bloomberg:

A stash of art uncovered in a Munich apartment in 2012 included top quality works that were previously unknown, among them a self-portrait by Otto Dix, said Meike Hoffmann, an art historian investigating the hoard.

The cache of almost 1,500 paintings, lithographs, drawings and prints included works by Max Beckmann, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Oskar Kokoschka, Franz Marc, Pierre Auguste Renoir and Max Liebermann, said Siegfried Kloeble of the Munich customs authorities. Some of the art dates back as far as the 16th century. It was stored correctly and in good condition, Hoffmann said.

Some works were seized by the Nazis from German museums -- others may have been sold by Jewish families under duress, Hoffmann said. Reinhard Nemetz, the chief prosecutor in Augsburg, said authorities won’t publish a list of the artworks online.

“The legal situation of the artworks is very complex,” Nemetz said at a news conference today in Augsburg. “We don’t want a situation where there are 10 claims for one painting.”

This last statement is completely bonkers. It just sounds as if Herr Nemetz can't be bothered to return these pictures to their rightful owners.

Sleeper Alert

October 29 2013

Image of Sleeper Alert

Picture: ATG

The Antiques Trade Gazette reports that the above picture made £240,000 at a Lyon & Turnbull sale in Edinburgh sale last week, against a £8,000-£12,000 estimate. It was catalogued as by a 16th Century follower of Dieric Bouts, who painted this very similar composition in the Staatliche Museum in Berlin. 

More of Leonardo's Sala delle Asse mural uncovered

October 24 2013

Image of More of Leonardo's Sala delle Asse mural uncovered

Picture: Affaritaliani.it

Removal of whitewash in Sforzesco Castle, Italy, has apparently revealed the remains of Leonardo's decoration in the Sala delle Asse. From the Gazzetta del Sud:

New sections of artwork by Leonardo da Vinci have been found in a room of the Sforzesco Castle, where he was the court artist for the duke of Milan, Ludovico il Moro, in the late 1400s. Restoration work on the Sala delle Asse (room of the planks), which da Vinci decorated from April to September of 1498 with a mural of trees soaring into a vaulted canopy, has revealed additional sections of the original work under several layers of whitewash - sometimes up to 17 - according to representatives of the Florentine restoration institute Opificio delle Pietre Dure. Restoration workers say they are uncovering a monochrome section of the mural depicting a huge tree root [below], stuck in rock at the base of the many trees that adorn the room - a giant, surprising 'trompe l'oeil'. Analyses done on the face of the mural to reconstruct the original composition give "quite interesting results", they say, and give hope of restoring large parts of the original decoration. So far the work of scraping away newer layers has been performed with mechanical means, like scalpels and hammers, but further work will likely require other methods, like ultrasound scaling, laser instruments and chemical products.

More photos of the work in action here.

Newly found Brueghel the Younger at Frieze

October 17 2013

Image of Newly found Brueghel the Younger at Frieze

Picture: FT

It's good to see that one of the headline pictures from this week's Frieze fairs has come from the Masters (ie, 'old') part. Congratulations to famed Old Master dealer Johnny Van Haeften for finding a lost work by Pieter Breughel the Younger in East Africa. The FT reports:

“I can tell you, it nearly blew my socks off,” Johnny Van Haeften laughed. “In my – what is it? – almost 44 years in the art world I’ve never known an experience like this.”

Van Haeften, one of London’s most respected dealers in Old Masters, sounded almost breathless as he told his story. Speaking from his Mayfair gallery, he was describing his first sight of a painting by Pieter Brueghel the Younger that has for the 400 years since its creation been completely unknown to the world.

It has been continuously in the possession of the same English family since a distant ancestor bought it, direct from the artist’s studio, in Antwerp in 1611.

The owners had never publicised their precious possession, although they were well aware of its pedigree. Until the 1950s they even had among the family papers the original receipt, Van Haeften tells me, made out in Antwerp in 1611 for the purchase price of 200 florints. (If that mislaid piece of paper ever comes to light, it will in itself be a fascinating object for art historians.)

Turner's Scottish Welsh Turner

October 4 2013

Image of Turner's Scottish Welsh Turner

Picture: Telegraph

The Telegraph reports that the above Turner in the Fitzwilliam Museum, which was formerly thought to show a scene in Wales, has now been identified as a scene in Scotland:

Inspired by the majestic Scottish landscapes during his first visit to the highlands in 1801, Joseph Turner created the watercolour painting, entitled The Traveller - Vide Ossian's War of Caros, the following year.

It was exhibited at the Royal Academy in London during 1802, but was incorrectly catalogued as a Welsh Mountain Landscape in the Fitzwilliam Museum of Cambridge University during the 1970s.

Now artistic detective work by Professor Murdo MacDonald, of Dundee University, and Eric Shanes, a former chairman of the Turner Society, has proved the painting is a depiction of the Loch Lomond area.

The pair used maps to scout the Scottish countryside to pinpoint the location as Rubha Mor, six miles to the south of Inveruglas.

I was driving along Loch Lomond earlier this week, and very beautiful it was too. I can see why Turner felt the place was worth painting. Full details of the discovery will appear in the next issue of Turner Society News, the journal of the Turner Society.

NPG buys Anne Clifford portrait

October 4 2013

Image of NPG buys Anne Clifford portrait

Picture: The Guardian

The National Portrait Gallery has acquired a newly identified portrait of Lady Anne Clifford by William Larkin. The portrait was found by the Weiss Gallery in London. More details here

Move along folks, nothing to see here...

October 4 2013

Image of Move along folks, nothing to see here...

Picture: Die Welt

How do you get a story in practically every paper in the world, with little or no effort? Easy, mention the words 'Leonardo', 'discovery' and 'expert' in the same press release. Hey presto, global media attention. The writer Fiona McLaren got wide coverage last year for claiming that she owned Leonardo's 'last commission'. She doesn't, but she's still going great guns with the idea, as this lecture at the University of Dundee shows. 

Anyway, the latest claim is the above portrait, of Isabella D'Este, which relates to the known Leonardo drawing in the Louvre. I find it hard to believe that it is by the greatest painter that ever lived, judging by the photo. I know it's dangerous to speculate from images, but AHN-ers don't like it when I sit on the fence. The drapery is really feeble. And did the same artist who painted the sublime hand in The Lady with an Ermine really paint that limp and formless thing above? I doubt it. But Leonardo 'expert' Carlo Pedretti has said he did. From The Guardian:

"There are no doubts that the portrait is Leonardo's work," said Carlo Pedretti, an emeritus professor of art history at the University of California.

If acknowledged as genuine – and if experts concur it was painted before the Mona Lisa – the portrait could shake up academic studies of one of the world's most famous painting.

The 61cm by 46.5cm portrait, which uses the same pigment in the paint and the same primer used by Leonardo, is the completed version of a sketch he made of D'Este, which, like the Mona Lisa, hangs in the Louvre in Paris.

The unnamed family which owns the portrait, and asked for it to be analysed, has kept a collection of about 400 paintings in Turgi, Switzerland since the start of the 20th century, reported the Corriere della Sera newspaper.

It's painted with old paint, on old primer - so it must be by Leonardo, right? Or might there have been thousands of artists around at that time who happened to use contemporary paints and techniques?

Regular readers will remember the most recent Pedretti blessing, for the so-called Isleworth Madonna, which just isn't, not in a million years, by Leonardo (as the highly respected Leonardo scholar  Prof. Martin Kemp has vainly tried to point out). Pedretti was also involved in that weird 'Leonardo sculpture' business I mentioned last year. You'd think by now that the press would be wary of people claiming to discover Leonardos without amassing a proper consensus among Leonardo scholars. But on it goes.

Update - The Telegraph has spoken to Martin Kemp:

Martin Kemp, professor emeritus of the history of art at Trinity College, Oxford, and one of the world’s foremost experts on da Vinci, said if the find was authenticated it would be worth “tens of millions of pounds” because there are only 15 to 20 genuine da Vinci works in the world.

But he raised doubts about whether the painting was really the work of Leonardo. The portrait found in Switzerland is painted on canvas, whereas Leonardo favoured wooden boards.

“Canvas was not used by Leonardo or anyone in his production line,” Prof Kemp told The Daily Telegraph. “Although with Leonardo, the one thing I have learnt is never to be surprised.”

There are further doubts – Leonardo gave away his original sketch to the marquesa, so he would not have been able to refer to it later in order to paint a full oil version.

“You can’t rule out the possibility but it seems unlikely,” Prof Kemp said. It was more likely to have been produced by one of the many artists operating in northern Italy who copied Leonardo’s works.

Update II - Professor Kemp has further written on his blog:

Another promotion of a non-Leonardo, pushed by the Corriere della Serra, which has been a great newspaper. I was contacted by someone called Veronica Artioli - not, apparently, an accredited arts journalist. I declined to express a visual opinion on the basis of the poor reproductions I had seen but made it clear that any attribution to Leonardo was not consistent with the documentation. The result is that I am implicitly cited as a supporter of the attribution. I will be asking for a retraction.

Having looked further at this, it is clear that the painting cannot be by Leonardo, on the basis of the documented account of Leonardo's relations with Isabella d'Este and his evident failure to paint her portrait.

Update III - a reader writes:

These "Leonardo" discoveries are getting quite tedious as you rightly point out. What is even more annoying is the unreflective acceptance by people and organizations that really should know better. Today, I found it on the TEFAF [The European Fine Art Fair] facebook-page. They are not really helping critical thinking, are they?

I wonder what this tells us about Tefaf vetting.

Update IV - TEFAF gets in touch to tell us:

We believe it's always a good thing to be very critical regarding the authenticity of a piece of art. TEFAF Maastricht is unrivalled in its standards and the methods it applies to establish the authenticity, quality and condition of every painting and object on sale at the fair. Without any exception a TEFAF vetting committee consists of several experts rather than one. By sharing news about (proclaimed) discoveries on our facebook page we hope to enable the discussion amongst our friends. Feel free to participate, we value your thoughts. We are excited to have this discussion and remain curious what further examination will teach us.

First photo of Titian's(?) 'Concert'

October 4 2013

Image of First photo of Titian's(?) 'Concert'

Picture: NG3, Possibly by Titian, 'The Music Lesson', about 1535, Oil on canvas 100.4 x 126.1 cm, (C) National Gallery, London

The National Gallery have kindly sent me a photo of the newly cleaned 'Concert', or as it is now called 'The Music Lesson', which I posted about below, and which is featured in the latest issue of The Burlington Magazine. The Gallery catalogues the work as 'Possibly by Titian'. It's hard to judge the picture from this, not least because it has obviously suffered significant damage in the past. The best bit is the central figure below, which, in his jacket, is quite Titian-esque. 

The first Las Meninas?

October 3 2013

Image of The first Las Meninas?

Picture: National Trust

A Spanish art historian, Dr Matias Diaz Padron (Director of the Instituto Moll, the 'Centre for the Study of Flemish Pictures' in Spain) has claimed that a previously overlooked 56 x 48 inch replica of 'Las Meninas' belonging to the National Trust (above) is in fact Velasquez's preliminary study for the work. Says The Guardian:

Díaz Padrón argued that the painting was "believed to be, and documented as, a Velázquez original in the 17th and 18th centuries … by the professors of the Royal Academy, including Francisco de Goya". It was only in the 19th and 20th centuries that the painting's provenance was changed, he said, with historians coming to believe it to be a later copy by Juan Bautista Martínez del Mazo, Velázquez's son-in-law and successor as painter to the royal court.

He argued that this was a mistake and that the painting was the first "boceto or modeletto" — a first draft or sketch – painted by Velázquez, which the king then asked him to reproduce on a larger scale, which now hangs in the Prado.

Díaz Padrón said: "Today, the moment has arrived to revise these judgments, and restore the painting's authorship to Velázquez." He said: "I don't see any differences between the boceto and the definitive work … the colours are typical of Velázquez in both pictures."

The debate is anything but settled, however, and the Prado museum denies that the painting in Kingston Lacy, bought by the English landowner and art collector William Bankes in the early 19th century, is an original.

I haven't got access to good images of the Kingston Lacy picture. There's one on the National Trust website here, and another on Your Paintings here. I'll try and get hold of a good photo. Compare with the original in the Prado here. In the meantime, it's interesting to note that if, as the Prado maintains, the Kingston Lacy picture is just a copy, then it isn't a particularly diligent copy. You can't, for example, see the all-important king and queen in the mirror (though it's possible I suppose that this is due to condition issues), and you'd have to wonder why a copyist would leave this out. Of course, if it is was a study by Velasquez, then it would make sense for him just to sketch in the mirror.

So keep an open mind folks. It looks to be a freely painted thing, of some quality. Mind you, if it was, as previously suggested, by Velasquez's talented son-in-law, Del Mazo, then it would also be a work of quality. Anyway, if the Kingston Lacy picture is 'right', then they'll have found a Rembrandt and a Velasquez in one year - amazing.

Update - a reader writes:

Díaz Padrón says that Lay Kingston painting, is a preliminary study of Las Meninas, but this is unlikely. In the X-ray test performed to Las Meninas, will appreciate, numerous changes, introduced during the process of composition. These changes are only in the original canvas and not in the copy. This is a copy of the basic composition of the canvas of the Prado, once finished. If this was a modeletto, would reflect occult version of the Prado painting, not the final version.

Diaz Padron insists on ignoring the evidence, physical and chemical. According to him: "An artist is not a pigment, not a glue, not a color" but a painting, it is.

Update II - another reader writes:

Confusion over the works of Velasquez and del Mazo has been around for centuries. 

Aside from the Kingston Lacy painting, the National Gallery paid £10,000 in 1890 for what it thought was a famous original portrait by Velasquez of Admiral Pareja.  For some years now that work has been “downgraded” and is generally thought to be by del Mazo.

What’s always intrigued me is that the Gallery has a fully authenticated del Mazo which, while it bears some similarities to the Admiral Pareja portrait, is much less impressive.  If the Admiral Pareja portrait is a copy by del Mazo, he clearly had some facility in imitating Velasquez’s technique – see also the rather splendid work in York.

Update III - the Grumpy Art Historian has found that the picture was 'discovered' before, about 15 years ago.

Apologies...

September 13 2013

Image of Apologies...

Image, detail, courtesy of His Grace the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry, KBE

...for the bad service lately - I'm thick in the editing of Samuel Cooper catalogue. Above is our design for the exhibition flyer, which is a detail of Cooper's c.1653 portrait of Oliver Cromwell. The Protector famously instructed Cooper to paint him 'warts and all', and you can see the best painted wart in the whole of art history above Cromwell's eyebrow.

For your diaries, everyone, the exhibition opens 13th November till 7th December, Monday-Friday 10-5, Saturdays 12-4. We're going to have a lot of new things to say about Cooper and portraiture in England in the mid 17th Century...

Update - a reader writes:

I spotted in a recent update you attributed the Cromwell 'Warts an All' quote to a work by Samuel Cooper. I always understood this to be an instruction he'd given to Peter Lely - and in fact have set this as a question in a recent quiz I wrote...

Do you believe it to have been Cooper instead? Or was it just a mistype?

Good question! It is commonly believed to have been said to Lely, as shown in this Horrible Histories clip, but, as we shall show in our exhibition and catalogue, must in fact have been said to Cooper.

Still more Van Gogh news

September 10 2013

Image of Still more Van Gogh news

Picture: TAN

We've probably learnt more new things about Van Gogh in the last week than in a whole decade. Amazing. Following on from his Sunflower revelations, and the epic unveiling yesterday in Amsterdam of an entirely unknown painting by the artist, Martin Bailey reports in The Art Newspaper on a previously unknown drawing by Van Gogh (above).

Even more Van Gogh news - a new Van Gogh unveiled

September 9 2013

Image of Even more Van Gogh news - a new Van Gogh unveiled

Picture: New York Times

It's all go for Van Gogh at the moment. The Van Gogh museum has unveiled a previously unknown painting by Van Gogh. The New York Times reports:

The painting has been in the private collection of a family for several years, but the museum would not release any more information about the owners because of privacy concerns, Mr. Rüger said. Two years ago, they brought it to the Van Gogh Museum to seek authentication, and researchers from the museum have been examining it ever since, said Mr. Rüger. The museum recently concluded that the work was a van Gogh because the painting’s pigments correspond with those of van Gogh’s palette from Arles.

It was also painted on the same type of canvas, with the same type of underpainting he used for at least one other painting, “The Rocks” (owned by the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston) of the same area at the same time. The work was also listed as part of Theo van Gogh’s collection in 1890, and was sold in 1901.

“Sunset at Montmajour” is comparable in size to van Gogh’s “Sunflower” painting of the same year. The owners brought it to the museum once before in 1991, said Mr. Rüger, but at the time no one recognized it as a van Gogh. “This time, we have topographical information plus a number of other factors that have helped us to establish authenticity. Research is so much more advanced now, so we could come to a very different conclusion.”

Update - read more on the Van Gogh museum website here. the full analysis will be in October's The Burlington Magazine

'The Sunflowers are Mine'

September 5 2013

Image of 'The Sunflowers are Mine'

Pictures: Aurum Publishing, and TAN

You might think that of perhaps the two most famous images in art history, Leonardo's Mona Lisa and Van Gogh's Sunflowers series, we know all there is to know. For the Mona Lisa that is, I would say, true, though that doesn't stop the fantasists coming up with new theories on who she is and what she's doing. It seems, however, that we knew comparatively little about Van Gogh's series of sunflower paintings, given how much extraordinary new information has been uncovered by Martin Bailey in his new book, The Sunflowers are Mine: The Story of Van Gogh's Masterpiece.

Perhaps the most eye catching revelation is the discovery that Van Gogh designed his own frame for at least one sunflower painting, which was destroyed in World War 2 (above):

A rare early colour image of Vincent van Gogh’s Six Sunflowers has been tracked down in Japan. It reveals that Van Gogh designed a bold orange frame for his still life. The framed painting, once in a private Japanese collection, was destroyed in an American bombing raid during the Second World War.

This newly discovered image is from a very scarce portfolio produced in Tokyo in 1921, which has escaped the attention of art historians. It is reproduced in The Sunflowers are Mine: The Story of Van Gogh’s Masterpiece, by Martin Bailey, to be published by Frances Lincoln on 5 September.

Van Gogh’s narrow wooden frame was painted in orange, producing a dramatic effect when set against the blue background of the still life. This reflects Van Gogh’s love of complementary colours (such as orange and blue), which have a vibrant effect when placed next to each other. Van Gogh has also varied the orange, so that it is a deep orange where it is next to the blue background and a lighter orange next to the lilac table.

We can now see how Van Gogh wanted to present his Six Sunflowers: the yellow-ochre sunflowers were set against a rich royal blue background and then framed in orange. This framing would have been revolutionary in 1888, when pictures were traditionally hung in gilt frames or, for very modern works, in white frames.

Astonishingly, Martin also managed to find new information about one of the most celebrated stories not only in Van Gogh's life, but in the whole of art history - the artist's mutilation of his ear. Writing in The Art Newspaper, Martin says:

While researching my book on Van Gogh’s Sunflowers I was astonished to find that the artist’s self-mutilation had been reported soon after it happened in a Parisian newspaper. It appeared in Le Petit Journal on 26 December 1888, three days after Van Gogh slashed off the lower part of his left ear, following a row with Gauguin. Until recently, only one short newspaper report of the mutilation was known, which was published a few days later in an Arles weekly, Le Forum Républicain.

The newly discovered article in a Parisian daily records important details. Le Petit Journal reported that Van Gogh used a razor. He then went to a “house of ill repute”, where he “gave his ear in a folded piece of paper” to the doorkeeper. Van Gogh told the recipient: “Take it, it will be useful”. These baffling words suggest that Van Gogh must have been suffering from an acute mental problem throughout the night, and did not just slice off part of his ear in a passing moment of madness.

The Parisian report is also important in another sense. Van Gogh’s self-mutilation was the first item of provincial news in Le Petit Journal, so the article must have attracted considerable attention in the capital. It would have been seen by many of his friends and much discussed in the Paris bars that Van Gogh frequented. This must have only added to the distress of his brother Theo, who was a respectable figure running an art gallery.

It seems astonishing that a virtually unknown individual living over 600km away who mutilated himself would have warranted this attention in a four-page Parisian newspaper (taking a quarter of the space devoted to provincial news that day). But even then, there was something sensationalist about the ear incident which grabbed public attention.

Other discoveries include news that:

  • Van Gogh completed his original four paintings of Sunflowers in less than a week, twice as fast as has been assumed. He chose to depict sunflowers because the weather was bad and his models failed to show up. 
  • There is also a second “unknown” Sunflowers painting which has always been hidden away in private collections. This is Van Gogh’s Three Sunflowers, with a bright turquoise background. It has never been exhibited in living memory and its whereabouts have been a mystery. Bailey reveals that Three Sunflowers was acquired by the Swiss-based Greek shipping tycoon George Embiricos, who sold it in the late 1990s. It was then bought by the present owner, a very discreet collector with a taste for Van Gogh.

Martin has written other books on Van Gogh; Van Gogh and Britain: Pioneer Collectors, Van Gogh and Sir Richard Wallace's Pictures, and Letters from Provence (the Illustrated Letters).

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