French hillside scene in Tree Roots may have been painted hours before artist’s death
The exact location from where Vincent van Gogh is likely to have painted his final masterpiece, perhaps just hours before his death, has been discovered with the help of a postcard.
The scene in Tree Roots, a painting of trunks and roots growing on a hillside near the French village of Auvers-sur-Oise near Paris was first spotted on a card dating from 1900 to 1910 by Wouter van der Veen, the scientific director of the Institut Van Gogh.
Following a comparative study of the painting, the postcard and the current condition of the hillside, researchers at the Van Gogh Museum and Bert Maes, a dendrologist specialising in historical vegetation, concluded that it was ‘highly plausible’ that the place where Van Gogh made his final brushstrokes had been unearthed.
The main trunk in the painting has survived the 130 years since the Dutch master’s death.
It has long been believed that Van Gogh had been working on Tree Roots shortly before he took his own life with a shot to the chest.
Andries Bonger, Theo’s brother-in-law, had described in a letter how the “morning before his death”, Van Gogh, had “painted a sous-bois [forest scene], full of sun and life”.
The site, put behind a wooden structure for its protection, was formally acknowledged at a ceremony attended by Emilie Gordenker, the general director of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, and Willem van Gogh, the great-grandson of Vincent’s brother Theo, on Tuesday.
Van der Veen said: “The sunlight painted by Van Gogh indicates that the last brush strokes were painted towards the end of the afternoon, which provides more information about the course of this dramatic day ending in his suicide.”
Teio Meedendorp, a senior researcher at the Van Gogh Museum, said the spot, some 150 meters from the Auberge Ravoux, the inn in Auvers-sur-Oise where Van Gogh had stayed the last 70 days of his life, would likely have been passed on a number of occasions by the artist before he decided to immortalise it on the canvas.
“The overgrowth on the postcard shows very clear similarities to the shape of the roots on Van Gogh’s painting,” he said. “That this is his last artwork renders it all the more exceptional, and even dramatic. He must often have passed by the location when going to the fields stretching out behind the castle of Auvers, where he painted several times during the last week of his life and where he would take his own life.”
Scène de rue à Montmartre has been part of same French family’s private collection for more than a century
A major Paris work by Vincent van Gogh that has been part of the same French family’s private collection for more than a century is to go on public display for the first time since it was painted in the spring of 1887.
Scène de rue à Montmartre is part of a very rare series depicting the celebrated Moulin de la Galette, on the hilltop overlooking the capital, painted during the two years the Dutch artist spent sharing an apartment with his brother Theo on rue Lepic.
Acquired by a French collector in 1920, it has remained in the same family ever since and never been shown in public, despite being listed in seven catalogues. It will be exhibited in London, Amsterdam and Paris before being sold by Sotheby’s in March when it is expected to fetch between €5m (£4.3m) and €8m.
“Very few paintings from Van Gogh’s Montmartre period remain in private hands – most are in the collections of prestigious museums around the world,” said Aurélie Vandevoorde of the auctioneer’s impressionist and modern art department in France. “The appearance on the market of a painting of this calibre, from such an iconic series, undoubtedly marks a major event.”
Claudia Mercier of the auction house Mirabaud Mercier, which is associated with the sale, said the work was “captivating”.
The painting shows the Moulin Dubray or Moulin à Poivre, a Montmartre windmill destroyed in 1911, along with the entrance of the Moulin de la Galette enclosure topped with decorative lanterns, and a carousel behind the wooden fence.
Montmartre, also known as La Butte, was being rapidly transformed at the time from rural village to brash amusement district, popular with Parisians for its cafes and with a generation of artists, intellectuals and writers for its bohemian atmosphere.
Van Gogh’s two years in Paris from 1886 to February 1888, when he left for Arles, are widely seen as laying the foundation for his later unique style, exposing him to the influence of impressionists such as Monet and Pissarro but also a younger generation of artists including Paul Signac, Émile Bernard and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
Vincent van Gogh remained penniless throughout his tragic life, which ended in suicide shortly after a stay in a mental asylum. Yet two decades later, paintings he had given to his sister were sold to pay for her stay in a psychiatric hospital, commanding such high prices that the proceeds funded years of treatment, according to letters published in a new book.
Willemien, the youngest of Van Gogh’s three sisters, shared his love of art and literature and, like him, struggled with her mental health. While Van Gogh was committed to an asylum after cutting off part of his ear and giving it to a prostitute in a fit of madness, his sister was institutionalised for almost 40 years until her death in 1941.
In 1909, the oldest sister, Anna, wrote of selling a picture that he had given Willemien, enabling her to pay for medical costs: “I remember when Wil got the painting from Vincent, but what a figure! Who would have thought that Vincent would contribute to Wil’s upkeep in this way?”
Anna, who had worked as a teacher’s assistant in England, was writing to Jo Bonger, wife of Van Gogh’s brother, Theo, who was an art dealer and always believed in Vincent’s talent when others did not.
After 1905, when a Van Gogh exhibition was staged at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, his paintings were enjoying some real success.
In the 1909 letter, Anna wrote of selling paintings: “Theo has always claimed it would happen, but what an unforeseen turn of events, such surprising outcomes.”
She also wrote of Willemien’s empty existence in the asylum: “The only book she sometimes reads is Aurora Leigh [by Elizabeth Barrett Browning] and the rest of times she just sits and sews for the nurses… In the morning, she sits on the porch feeding the birds, but if a nurse then tries to go for a little walk in the garden with her, she refuses.”
Anna wrote of buying her “soft leather slippers” to comfort her: “I try all sorts of things and I keep hoping something will get through to her.” But her sister’s condition worsened over the years.
This is one of hundreds of unpublished letters written by the sisters, their friends and family members which will feature in a book called The Van Gogh Sisters, giving insights into the tragedy and turmoil of their lives.
Dutch art historian Willem-Jan Verlinden, author of the book to be published by Thames & Hudson in April, following its Dutch edition, said: “The letters are only in Dutch, so they’ve never been available… and not in English.
“Van Gogh’s sisters had to sell his paintings for their livelihood. As he became more and more famous and the prices for his paintings went up, he was, in a way, providing for his sisters, even long after he had passed on.”
The letters are held in the archives of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Hans Luijten, its senior researcher and author of a forthcoming biography, All for Vincent, said: “These are a real goldmine, with wonderful observations. I want to make a survey of what the family members say about Vincent. They’re so interesting. One by one, we intend to publish them in the near future.”
Other material includes the correspondence of Willemien’s friend, Margaretha Meijboom, whose own brother had a history of mental health problems. When news came through that Van Gogh had cut off his ear and ended up in an asylum, she comforted a devastated Willemien in a letter, dated 1888: “That poor fellow, how dreadful, so ill – I mean, in that way – and on top of it, so far away… I understand your feelings perfectly… Going to a sanatorium sounds harsh, but did you know that any expert would recommend not postponing it for too long? Patients suffer less because they get the right treatment.”
She continued: “What a blessing he was not alone, but had help. Who shall let you know what is happening now? Paul [Gauguin], or the doctor at the asylum?”
On 27 July 1890, Van Gogh shot himself in the chest with a pistol. Theo rushed from Paris to Auvers and was there when his brother died of his injuries on 29 July.
Willemien too ended up in an asylum in 1902. Verlinden wonders whether her mental problems would have been tackled today with medication: “At that time, it meant that you had to be sent to an asylum. She stayed there half her life. That’s the sad thing. But the beautiful thing is she had 17 paintings that Vincent made for her and her mother and the sale was used to pay for her.”
Search continues for multimillion-pound Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring and Two Laughing Boys
Dutch police have arrested a 58-year-old man on suspicion of stealing two paintings by Vincent van Gogh and Frans Hals from museums in the Netherlands last year.
The man was held at his home in the central town of Baarn over the thefts of Van Gogh’s The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring and Hals’s Two Laughing Boys.
Police said they had not recovered either of the paintings. The Van Gogh is valued at up to €6m (£5m).
“For months, intensive investigations into the robbery of both paintings were conducted under the leadership of the public prosecution service,” they said.
The Van Gogh painting was stolen from the Singer Laren Museum near Amsterdam on 30 March while it was closed due to coronavirus restrictions. The theft happened on what would have been the 19th-century painter’s 167th birthday.
Two months later, the Dutch art detective Arthur Brand received two “proof of life” photos of the Van Gogh alongside a dated front page of the New York Times newspaper.
Parsonage Garden was painted relatively early in Van Gogh’s career, before the prolific artist embarked on his trademark post-impressionist works such as Sunflowers and vivid self-portraits.
Two Laughing Boys by the 17th-century Dutch master Hals was stolen in a burglary in August from the Hofje van Mevrouw van Aerden Museum in Leerdam.
The painting, which features a pair of laughing boys with a mug of beer, was previously stolen from the museum in 2011 and 1988. It was recovered after six months and three years respectively.
“Both paintings have not yet resurfaced with this arrest. The search continues unabated,” the police said. “This arrest is an important step in the investigation.”
Brand – known as the Indiana Jones of the art world for finding several lost paintings – hailed the news of the arrest. “Another huge success for Dutch police,” he tweeted. “The plot thickens...”
Van Gogh’s works have been a frequent target of crime. Two masterpieces went back on display at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in 2004, two years ago after they were stolen.
The paintings – the 1882 View of the Sea at Scheveningen and the 1884-85 Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen – were recovered by Italian investigators in September 2016 when they raided a home belonging to a mafia drug baron near Naples.
Previously, three Van Goghs that were stolen from the Noordbrabants Museum in 1990 resurfaced when a Dutch criminal made a deal with prosecutors.
Hals was a contemporary of fellow masters Rembrandt and Vermeer during the so-called Dutch golden age, a flowering of trade, science and art in the Netherlands spanning the 17th century.
He is best known for works including The Laughing Cavalier, which hangs in the Wallace Collection in London, and The Gypsy Girl, housed in the Louvre, Paris.