‘Sunset at Montmajour’: a newly discovered
painting by Vincent Van Gogh


by LOUIS VAN TILBORGH, TEIO MEEDENDORP and ODA VAN MAANEN

 


WHEN THE MUCH-AWAITED, revised edition of De la Faille’s catalogue
raisonné of Van Gogh’s oeuvre was published in 1970 it was
not to universal acclaim. In this Magazine Ronald Pickvance
spoke glumly of a ‘progress report’, and John Rewald thought
that if there was ‘a more confusing way to present a catalogue,
the editors apparently couldn’t find it’.1 But, pace the grumblers,
it did have its virtues, the most important being that ‘at least 100
paintings and drawings’ had been discovered.2 Although that was
a sizable number, it turned out that the additions to the oeuvre
were far from complete, because even more works have been
rescued from oblivion since then.3 However, no matter how fascinating
and important such discoveries are for a proper understanding
of the oeuvre, when one takes a closer look at what has
been added since De la Faille’s original book of 1928 one finds
that there have been very few real surprises. In retrospect, what
he had missed back then was not all that much: The Tarascon
coaches of 1888, some pen drawings from Arles, and one from
Saint-Rémy.4


So the words ‘absolutely sensational’ are no less than fitting for
the recent discovery of an unpublished and ambitious painting in
a private collection from ‘the zenith, the climax, the greatest
flowering of van Gogh’s decade of artistic activity’ – his Arles
period (Fig.56).5 It shows a wild, rocky area to the east of the
ruined abbey on the hill of Montmajour. There are numerous
holm (or holly) oaks, and even today the area abounds in these
distinctively Mediterranean trees with their holly-shaped leaves
and twisted trunks (Fig.54).6 At top left are the ruins bathed in
the late afternoon sun, which have made it possible to pin down
the precise spot and Van Gogh’s orientation. He was looking
west on a plateau about a kilometre from Montmajour, just south
of the road that winds its way to Fontvieille (Fig.57).7 Through
the bushes on the right is a glimpse of the farmland that stretches
north-west to the Rhône.


Van Gogh had realised the potential of this untouched area
around Montmajour as a subject almost as soon as he arrived in
Arles in early 1888, but because it was too cold and windy at the
time he had put off recording the ‘beautiful things’ there.8 It was
not until the end of May that he began to explore the area in
drawings (Figs.55 and 71), but he seems to have been also thinking
of capturing some of the subjects in oils. Possibly inspired by
Theo’s recent description of Monet’s Under the pines: evening
(Fig.58), he thought that a sunset at this spot, with the orange-
This article was translated from the Dutch by Michael Hoyle. All the data on the pigments
in Sunset at Montmajour are from the technical report by Muriel Geldof, Luc
Megens and Maarten van Bommel of the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands
(RCE), project number 2012-014 (hereafter RCE report). Unless otherwise
stated, all the samples in this article were prepared in cross-section and examined with
the light microscope and Scanning Electron Microscope with Energy Dispersive Xray
Analysis (SEM-EDX) by Muriel Geldof. The indication of pigments with handheld
X-ray Fluorescence Spectrometry (XRF) was performed by Luc Megens, and
analyses with High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) by Maarten van
Bommel. Don H. Johnson and Robert G. Erdmann were instrumental in analysing
the types of canvas used for Sunset at Montmajour and The rocks in the framework of
the Thread Count Automation Project (TCAP). The information about the history
of the painting and Christian Nicolai Mustad was supplied by the former owner, who
wishes to remain anonymous, as do the present owners. Many thanks to David Bomford
and Helga Aurisch of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, who gave us the
opportunity to examine The rocks, and to Melissa Gardner for the identification of the
pigments in the ground of that painting using polarised light microscopy (PLM) of
dispersed pigment samples and XRF. We are also grateful to Tina Tan and Maureen
Eck for their kind help with the photography and photo micrographs of The rocks; to
Petra Pettersen, Munch Museum, Oslo, Turid Aakhus and Nils Messel, both of the
Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo, for providing us with information on Mustad as a collector.
Our thanks, too, to Walter Feilchenfeldt, Sjraar van Heugten, Evert van Uitert, and
our colleagues in the Van Gogh Museum: Monique Hageman, Ella Hendriks, Leo
Jansen, Hans Luijten and Marije Vellekoop.


1 J.-B. de la Faille: The works of Vincent van Gogh. His paintings and drawings, Amsterdam
1970 (hereafter the catalogue numbers in this book are referred to as F followed
by a number); the quotations are from R. Pickvance: ‘The new De la Faille’, THE
BURLINGTON MAGAZINE 115 (1973), p.175, and J. Rewald: Post-Impressionism. From
Van Gogh to Gauguin, New York 1978, p.538.


2 Pickvance, op. cit. (note 1), p.175, to which he added that it was ‘difficult not to
696 october 2013 • clv • the burlington magazine
‘Sunset at Montmajour’: a newly discovered painting by
Vincent van Gogh


by LOUIS VAN TILBORGH, TEIO MEEDENDORP and ODA VAN MAANEN

 

Full article in The Burlington Magazine, October 2013.