Painting kept in attic and thought to be fake identified as long-lost Van Gogh
Peter Dejong, Associated Press
AMSTERDAM — The first full-size Vincent Van Gogh painting to be discovered in 85 years has been authenticated as a genuine long-lost work of the Dutch master after an odyssey that included lingering for six decades in the attic of a Norwegian industrialist who had been told it was a fake.
"Sunset at Montmajour" depicts a dry landscape of twisting oak trees, bushes and sky, and it was done during the period when Van Gogh was increasingly adopting the thick brush strokes that became typical of his work in the final years of his short life, experts at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam said Monday.
It can be dated to the exact day it was painted because Vincent described it in a letter to his brother, Theo, and said he had painted it the previous day — July 4, 1888.
"At sunset I was on a stony heath where very small, twisted oaks grow, in the background a ruin on the hill and wheat fields in the valley," Van Gogh wrote.
"It was romantic...the sun was pouring its very yellow rays over the bushes and the ground, absolutely a shower of gold."
But then Vincent confessed that the painting was "well below what I'd wished to do," and later he sent it to Theo to keep.
Museum director Axel Rueger, at an unveiling ceremony in the museum, described the discovery as a "once-in-a-lifetime experience".
"This is a great painting from what many see as the high point of his artistic achievement, his period in Arles, in southern France," he said. "In the same period he painted works such as 'Sunflowers,' 'The Yellow House' and 'The Bedroom'."
Van Gogh struggled with bouts of mental distress throughout his life, and died of a self-inflicted gun wound in 1890. He sold only one painting while he was alive, though his work was just beginning to win acclaim when he died.
According to a reconstruction published in The Burlington Magazine by three researchers, the painting was recorded as number 180 in Theo's collection, and given the title "Sun Setting at Arles." It was sold to French art dealer Maurice Fabre in 1901.
Fabre never recorded selling the work, and the painting disappeared from history until it reappeared in 1970 in the estate of Norwegian industrialist Christian Nicolai Mustad.
The Mustad family said that Christian had purchased the work in 1908 as a young man in one of his first forays into art collecting, but he had soon after been told by the French ambassador to Sweden that it was a fake. Embarrassed, Mustad banished it to the attic.
After Mustad's death in 1970, art dealer Daniel Wildenstein said he thought the painting was either a fake Van Gogh or possibly the work of a less-known German painter, and the painting was sold to a collector. The museum said it will not disclose who purchased it, or whether it has been resold since then.
In 1991 the museum itself declined to authenticate the painting.
"That may be a painful admission, given that the same museum is now attributing it to Van Gogh, but it is understandable" as experts had no information about what the painting depicted, the Burlington Magazine article said.
Teio Meedendorp, one of three experts who worked on the project, said his predecessors might also have been confused because the painting was done at a "transitional" moment in Van Gogh's style.
"From then on, Van Gogh increasingly felt the need to paint with more and more impasto (thick strokes using lots of paint) and more and more layers," he said.
The painting was unsigned. Some parts of the foreground were not "as well-observed as usual." And part of the right side of the painting used a different style of brush strokes — possibly the same reasons Van Gogh himself considered the painting a failure.
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