November 26, 2018
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News about the discovery of a long-lost Van Gogh painting—the first major composition by the artist to be authenticated in 85 years—set the art world abuzz Monday with talk of the work’s value, ownership and, most notably, its impact on the tortured Dutch painter’s legacy.
How significant is this revelation?
It is “a very big deal,” said Austin Porter, visiting assistant professor of art history at Kenyon. “This sort of thing doesn’t happen very often. It’s more common for someone to find a drawing or an incomplete work. This is not something Van Gogh just knocked out and forgot about. This really appears to be a complete composition.”
The landscape “Sunset at Montmajour” was said by experts at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam to have been painted July 4, 1888, in Arles, France, where the artist created his famed “Sunflowers.” The work can be dated to the exact day it was painted because Van Gogh described it in a letter to his brother, Theo. A complete study of those letters, combined with a chemical analysis of the paint pigments and X-rays of the canvas, helped the museum positively identify the painting.
“The people who authenticate these pieces do not do so lightly,” said Porter, who referenced Monday’s Associated Press report that the museum dismissed the unsigned painting as a fake 20 years ago. “For the museum to go back on its previous declaration, they had to be very sure.”
Porter, who specializes in modern and contemporary art, was most intrigued by the multi-layered nature of the authentication process. “It’s a combination of scientific analysis and old-fashioned detective work,” he said. “Following leads and trying to determine how something fits in with everything else is part of the fun. It’s addictive.”
It is the kind of interdisciplinary approach Porter and his colleagues in the art history department emphasize at Kenyon. In addition to talking about a piece of art, he encourages students to look at the life of the artist behind the work and the historical circumstances of its creation.
“These really are objects that have lives, that get burnt, that get painted over, that get stolen, that are replaced,” he said. “They are not just pretty pictures. They are three-dimensional things that are bought, sold, traded, and revered.”
While Porter does not expect a flood of new Van Gogh merchandise—the painting’s “fairly traditional” subject matter may not translate easily to a T-shirt or coffee mug—he does predict a “huge spike in admission” at the Van Gogh Museum, which will display the artwork starting Sept. 24.
“Of course, I’m just excited about anything that gets people looking at art again.”