Finding a Lost Van Gogh: Technology in the Art World

two paintings of the same subject by vincent van gogh side by side

(Left) Vincent van Gogh, The Road Menders, 1889. Oil on canvas, 29 x 36 1/2 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1949 (Right) Vincent van Gogh, The Large Plane Trees (Road Menders at Saint-Rémy), 1889. Oil on fabric, 28 7/8 x 36 1/8 in. The Cleveland Museum of Art. Gift of the Hanna Fund, 1947

Vincent van Gogh has been popular in headlines around the world this week, after it was confirmed that a painting stowed in an attic for years is an authentic van Gogh original.

The revelation begins an interesting dialogue about the impact of science and technology on the art world. There’s no doubt it’s opened innumerable doors of opportunity as a medium, but it’s also created an opportunity for new questions to be asked. In the case of the discovered painting, technology (among other resources) helped us answer a question. Is this painting by Vincent van Gogh? Yes, we can decidedly say it is.

But in the Phillips’s upcoming exhibition Van Gogh Repetitions, science and technology may leave us with more questions than answers. We’re able to examine van Gogh’s works at a level never before known. We can tell what elements make the blues hiding inside the gap of Madame Roulin‘s sleeves vary from portrait to portrait, or how many millimeters the distance between her eyes changes, but it can’t tell us what compelled the artist to make five paintings of the same woman, or which changes he even intended to make. Were some just error? Are there more limbs on a tree in the background of the Phillips’s The Road Menders than there in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s The Large Plane Trees (Road Menders at Saint-Rémy) because it was more true to life, or because van Gogh found it more visually appealing?

As Director Dorothy Kosinski notes in this Washington Post article by Emily Yahr, art history isn’t static; “there’s so much that’s changed and continues to change, and it’s a wonderful revelation—especially to the layperson—of the importance of the work we do.”

Amy Wike, Publicity & Marketing Coordinator

Georges Braque: A Closer Look

In conjunction with the exhibition Georges Braque and the Cubist Still Life, 1928-1945, colleagues from digital media, audio visual support, curatorial, and communications departments created a collection of short videos based on the technical examinations of four Braque paintings in our collection. These studies revealed new discoveries about Braque’s working methods, his palette, pigments, and the layering structure and composition of his materials. The videos are organized into chapters and feature associate conservator Patricia Favero narrating her findings. She examines paintings in visible, raking, and ultraviolet light and with a stereo-microscope and an infrared camera.

Treatment of Braque and Villon’s The Studio Table: Part 3, Final Steps

Read part one and part two in this series.

After drying The Studio Table (1923), it was noted that some adhesive still remained in the paper, creating distortions and discoloration.  Identification of the adhesive was made using examination with ultraviolet light and spot tests.  A gelatin specific enzyme was selected to remove the residual adhesive and brushed onto the margins under a controlled temperature and humidity setting. The print was then rinsed to remove any excess enzyme and a Japanese stippling brush was used to encourage the leftover adhesive to come loose. After drying between felts, it was observed that the adhesive had successfully been removed along with much of the staining in the margins. Click on the thumbnails below to view the process.

In addition to the previous mat being glued onto the piece, the mat board behind the print was composed of poor quality materials and had likely been in place for more than 50 years, which led to discoloration in the form of a matburn surrounding the image area of the print. A reducing agent solution was brushed onto the stain in tiny dots with a tiny brush in order to diminish it. The print was again rinsed, then rehumidified and dried between felts.

Here you can see the dramatic difference in the print’s condition before and after treatment. The Studio Table is currently on display on the second floor of the Sant Building as part of the Georges Braque and the Cubist Still Life exhibition until September 1, 2013.

Caroline Hoover, Conservation Assistant

Studio Table before treatment, left, and after treatment, right.

Studio Table before treatment, left, and after treatment, right.