Sunset at Montmajour

Sunset at Montmajour

"Yesterday, at sunset, I was on a stony heath where very small, twisted oaks grow, in the background a ruin on the hill, and wheatfields in the valley. It was romantic, it couldn’t be more so, à la Monticelli, the sun was pouring its very yellow rays over the bushes and the ground, absolutely a shower of gold. And all the lines were beautiful, the whole scene had a charming nobility. You wouldn’t have been at all surprised to see knights and ladies suddenly appear, returning from hunting with hawks, or to hear the voice of an old Provençal troubadour. The fields seemed purple, the distances blue..."
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Painting Date
4th of July 1888
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This canvas sat in an attic in the Netherlands for over one hundred years before being declared authentic by the Van Gogh Museum in 2013.  The owner had been advised it was not painted by Vincent but based upon current methods of analysis and confirmation in an inventory list, we now know it is the painting referred to in three letters from Vincent to Theo in the summer of 1888.  It has recognizable features of ruins that are in an area outside of town in which Vincent paints others scenes as spring gives way in Arles and the rest of Provence.  The street view shows a modern day view of the vicinity Vincent chose for his perspective that day.  The brushstrokes Vincent chose can be seen by clicking on the detailed views of the paintings and related images at right.
In June and July of 1888, Vincent packs his easel and painting tools on his back and walks Northeast of Arles on the Road to Tarascon.  About a mile along the road, an old Benedictine Abbey at Montmajour sits high on a hill overlooking a flat plain of fields of crops called the Crau.  Vincent will paint and draw scenes along the road and around the abbey as the Provence spring gives way to summer.  Fierce seasonal winds called mistrals blow for days at a time and make working outside difficult but Vincent prefers this to the dusty streets of Arles, the ancient roman city where he is living.  He has rented the bare Yellow House but is living above the Restaurant de La Gare above a night cafe he will paint in the coming months and using the Yellow House as a studio.  Vincent is filled with optimism and feels he is laying the groundwork for his envisioned “studio of the south” where he will be joined by various members of “the painters of the petit boulevard”.
 Vincent is still experimenting with his brushstroke and the small dots of his contemporaries and fellow post-impressionists, Seurat, Signac and Pissarro.  He uses a similar yellow as found in another painting and related image of oak trees on a rocky ledge.  Vincent paints a sky of wide, lateral brushstrokes of blue, green, white and pink taking the top third of the canvas.  Only a gray cloud breaks the horizontal strokes with vertical and somewhat curved strokes.  A horizon of prussian blue with the ruins of the abbey in the same blue at middle left.  The low Provence sun reflects off the sides of the building and the leaves of the plants in the foreground.  Vincent felt he overworked this canvas in the studio after fighting through the wind (he nailed his easel legs into the ground to battle the wind) to capture the scene under the setting sun.
“My dear Theo,
Work occupies me so much, I can’t manage to write. I’d have liked to write to Gauguin again, because I fear he may be iller than he says — his last letter in pencil looked so much that way.
In that case, what’s to be done — I have no reply from Russell yet.
Yesterday, at sunset, I was on a stony heath where very small, twisted oaks grow, in the background a ruin on the hill, and wheatfields in the valley. It was romantic, it couldn’t be more so, à la Monticelli, the sun was pouring its very yellow rays over the bushes and the ground, absolutely a shower of gold. And all the lines were beautiful, the whole scene had a charming nobility. You wouldn’t have been at all surprised to see knights and ladies suddenly appear, returning from hunting with hawks, or to hear the voice of an old Provençal troubadour. The fields seemed purple, the distances blue.  And I brought back a study of it too, but it was well below what I’d wished to do.
Tasset hadn’t sent enough zinc white the other day. I get on very well using it, but it has the disadvantage of drying very slowly, so, for example, the studies done at Saintes-Maries aren’t dry yet.”

To Theo. Arles, Thursday, 5 July 1888




“I’ve already told you more than once how much the Camargue and the Crau — apart from a difference in colour and the clearness of the atmosphere — make me think of the old Holland of Ruisdael’s day. It seems to me that these two sites in the flat countryside, covered with vines and stubble fields, seen from above, will give you an idea of it.
I assure you that I’m tired out by these drawings; I’ve started a painting too — but no means of doing it with the mistral, absolutely impossible.
Now about this canvas — I’ve compared Tasset’s new canvas at 4.50 francs with the price for the same quality from Bourgeois — (it’s in his catalogue that I tracked down the price of ordinary canvas, 40 francs per 20 square metres). Ah, well, once again Tasset hasn’t charged any more; it was exactly the same price.  Follows from that that we also ought to be able to have ordinary canvas at 2 francs per square metre at Tasset’s, and in future we’ll do well to take that, which is certainly good enough for studies.”

To Theo. Arles, on or about Friday, 13 July 1888





My dear Theo,
Yesterday I spent the evening with that second lieutenant, and he plans to leave here on Friday, then he’ll stay one night in Clermont, and from Clermont he’ll send you a telegram to tell you by which train he’ll be arriving. Sunday morning, in all probability.
The roll that he’ll bring you contains 36 studies; among them there are many with which I’m desperately dissatisfied, and which I’m sending you anyway because it will still give you a vague idea of some really fine subjects in the countryside.
For example, there’s a quick sketch I made of myself laden with boxes, sticks, a canvas, on the sunny Tarascon road; there’s a view of the Rhône, in which the sky and the water are the colour of absinthe, with a blue bridge and black figures of ruffians; there’s the sower, a washing-place and still others, not at all successful and unfinished, especially a large landscape with brushwood. 

To Theo. Arles, on or about Monday, 13 August 1888



From noted Dutch reporter and historian, Gary Schwarz:


327 Van Gogh painting newly rediscovered again

Axel Rüger, director of the Van Gogh Museum, showing van Gogh’s Sunset at Montmajour to artist-actor Jeroen Krabbé on the day when the painting went on public display.


“Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum on September 23 unveiled a newly discovered landscape painting from the height of the Dutch master’s career, abandoned for years as a forgery in a Norwegian attic. ‘Sunset at Montmajour,’ a large oil landscape from 1888, was unveiled to applause by the museum’s director Axel Rueger as a ‘unique experience that has not happened in the history of the Van Gogh Museum.’ Depicting a landscape of oaks in the south of France, the painting was brought to the museum from a private collection.”


This text, from the outstanding and highly recommended ArtDailyNewsletter of 25 September, is typical of the reports that have been emerging from the Van Gogh Museum since the initial announcement on 9 September 2013 that an important painting by Vincent van Gogh, unrecorded since 1901, has been identified and published. “This discovery,” the museum said in its press release, “emphasizes the importance of research that the Van Gogh Museum, as expertise centre, carries out into Van Gogh’s painting method and life.”

The recovery of van Gogh’s Sunset at Montmajour for the public and the art world is heartening and enriching. However, there are more issues involved than the recovery alone, and not all of these live up to the gold standard of good custodianship. Of the too many problematic aspects of the case that struck me, let me report only on four: the “newness” of the “discovery”; the questionable role of the Van Gogh Museum in the history of the attribution of the painting; the silence concerning ownership of the painting; and the deficiency of some of the proofs adduced for van Gogh’s authorship of the painting (which in itself I do not doubt).

To us the existence of Sunset at Montmajour might be new, but the Van Gogh Museum has known the painting for 22 years. It was submitted for judgment in 1991, at which time the museum notified the owner that “we think that the picture in question is not an authentic Van Gogh.” The quotation is from the scholarly publication on the re-attribution in the October issue of the Burlington Magazine, the art-historical equivalent of an article in Nature or Science. (Louis van Tilborgh, Teio Meedendorp and Oda van Maanen, all curators at the Van Gogh Museum, “’Sunset at Montmajour’: a newly discovered painting by Vincent van Gogh,” The Burlington Magazine 155 [2013], nr. 1327, pp. 696-705.) Given this embarrassing fact, the rhetoric surrounding the announcement should have been toned down considerably. The painting should not be called “newly discovered,” certainly not in a journal of record like the Burlington. A more accurate title for the article would have been “Sunset at Montmajour: the Van Gogh Museum changes its mind about an attribution and corrects an old error of its own.”

The way the museum does deal with the error not only fails to make it into the title of the article, it barely gets into the footnotes. In correspondence from November and December 1991, the museum – then as now the ultimate arbiter of authenticity in the van Gogh world – issued in private the erroneous judgment that the painting was “not … authentic.” As we shall see, the proofs for van Gogh’s authorship of the painting are so powerful and were so knowable to the museum, that its behavior in 1991 amounts to a miscarriage of authority. For the history of connoisseurship and for the evaluation of the record of the Van Gogh Museum as an “expertise centre,” it seems to me called for that the museum publish and comment on the correspondence in its archive. In addition to more scholarly matters, one wants to know whether the museum informed the owners about the proofs it now advances in favor of an attribution to van Gogh. That information could have been of great value to them. In 1990 the highest price ever fetched by a work of art at auction, $82.5 million, was paid for a van Gogh portrait of Dr. Paul Gachet. When the owners of Sunset at Montmajour brought their painting to the Van Gogh Museum, a positive judgment would have been worth tens of millions. The rejection robbed the painting of nearly all its value.

In contrast to most contested attributions, this one was decided by a smoking gun. When Vincent’s brother Theo died in 1890, leaving all his belongings to his wife Jo Bonger, Jo’s brother Andries drew up a Catalogue des oeuvres de Vincent van Gogh, an inventory of the paintings by Vincent in the estate. Number 180 of the list was “soleil couchant à Arles (30).” “The subject and size of the picture match that description,” we read in the Burlington (“The number 30 is an identification of the format [‘Portrait’ 30 = 92 by 73 cm.]),” “ but the clinching piece of evidence is simply that the number 180 is written on the back of the canvas.”

The location of the Catalogue des oeuvres de Vincent van Gogh is not given in the article in the Burlington, nor is the document illustrated there. It can be found on Internet in the marvelously rich material provided by the Van Gogh Museum to the website The memory of the Netherlands, with the reference: “b 3055 V/1962 (document), Brieven en Documenten, Van Gogh Museum.” The image of the reverse of Sunset at Montmajour is from the article in the Burlington Magazine.

This is indeed proof of exceptional power, compared to which none of the new testing methods of the last twenty years to which the museum now refers in justification of its change of mind could have contributed much at all, except lack of negative evidence. It leaves you wondering all the more about the reasons the museum could have had in 1991 to conclude that the painting is “not an authentic Van Gogh.” What more proof than that number could one possibly want for the authenticity of a late nineteenth-century painting of a quintessential and documented van Gogh subject to which Vincent moreover made reference in several letters? Or did the museum really think that the painting was a forgery? And why should the Van Gogh have waited to reconsider this unique case until the painting was once more submitted to it for an opinion, rather than returning to it on its own, in the exercise of its function as “expertise centre”?

The answers to these questions are presumably linked to the identity and behavior of the succeeding owners of the painting, about whom and which the museum goes out of its way to tell us nothing whatsoever. The only reported fact concerning ownership of the painting after it was sold by Jo is that it belonged, probably from the early twentieth century on, to the Norwegian industrialist Christian Nicolai Mustad (1878–1970). The museum, which I assume is in possession of all provenance information since 1970, does not name his heirs by name. “In 1991,” people who are identified only as “following owners,” concerning whom we do not even know whether they were the first ones after the Mustad estate, “contacted the Van Gogh Museum and, although the picture was felt to be interesting, it was eventually decided that it was not by Van Gogh. That may be a painful admission, given that the same Museum is now attributing it to Van Gogh, but that is not incomprehensible, and nor was the initial rejection.”

The grounds that made the initial rejection of a painting marked on the back with a number written on it in 1890 “not incomprehensible” are not vouchsafed unto us. The relevant note in the Burlington article reads: “Letters to the then owner of 18th, 26th and 28th November 1991 and, after having seen the work, in a letter of 18th December 1991 (Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum Archive): ‘we think that the picture in question is not an authentic Van Gogh.’” Had the museum not made the connection between the number 180 on the back of the canvas and the Bonger list? Was it so put off by weaknesses in the painting that it felt that these overrode such merely circumstantial evidence as the correspondence of numbers? Tell us!

By all appearances, the museum seems to be withholding vital information from the public in order to protect its right to show the painting for a year. Aside from the undisclosed ownership and provenance, the museum has also failed to tell us about an apparent leak of confidential information that casts a shadow on present proceedings. Last June, someone who knew that the museum was going to give a stamp of approval to Sunset at Montmajour put the painting into play on the market for 150 to 200 million dollars. (See Stefan Koldehoff in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitungof 13 September, who hints that the Van Gogh Museum showing is an extended viewing for the intended sale.)

Considerations of this kind are bound to have their effect on scholarly practice as well. Once it had decided that the painting was by van Gogh, the museum lowered some of its methodological standards to irresponsible depths. One of the pillars on which the attribution to van Gogh of Sunset at Montmajour is said to be based is that the pigments it contains were characteristic for his palette in Arles, where the painting was made. The strongest statement for this case is found in the museum press release of 9 September: “Technical research has shown that the pigments used correspond with those of Van Gogh’s palette from Arles – including the discolorations that are so characteristic of his oeuvre.” One step down from this unconditional claim is taken in the Burlington, where we read: “Almost all the pigments are the ones he habitually had on his palette at this time” (p. 698; my italics). Only in a note to this remark are we told that not all the pigments identified were in fact “on his palette at this time.” Concerning “an organic red pigment (redwood) on a substrate containing tin and possibly aluminium [and] an organic red pigment (cochineal),” we read the factual statement “As far as we know these types of organic red pigment have not previously been identified in paintings by Van Gogh from his Arles period,” followed by the astonishing qualification “but there is a lack of comparative material owing to the limited analyses of other paintings from the period” (p. 699).

In other words, when a piece of evidence supports the conclusion of the Van Gogh Museum it is maintained at full strength even if it is blemished, while if the same facts contradict that conclusion they are brushed off the table for “lack of comparative material.”

In defense of the comprehensibility of his decision to do whatever it took to present this major work to visitors for a year, Axel Rüger told the press that “we would not be taking our mission seriously if we let this opportunity pass.” I would expect more justification than that from a museum that in most ways indeed carries out its mission to the highest standard. My own feeling is that this time around the Van Gogh Museum, which in so many other respects is a model of outstanding custodianship, has lowered the bar of museological transparency further than necessary.


© Gary Schwartz 2013. Published on the Schwartzlist on 2 October 2013.


9 September, 2013

The Van Gogh Museum has discovered a new painting by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890): Sunset at Montmajour (1888). Director Axel Rüger: “A discovery of this magnitude has never before occurred in the history of the Van Gogh Museum. It is already a rarity that a new painting can be added to Van Gogh’s oeuvre.

But what makes this even more exceptional is that this is a transition work in his oeuvre, and moreover, a large painting from a period that is considered by many to be the culmination of his artistic achievement, his period in Arles in the south of France. During this time he also painted world-famous works, such as SunflowersThe Yellow House and The Bedroom. The attribution to Van Gogh is based on extensive research into style, technique, paint, canvas, the depiction, Van Gogh’s letters and the provenance.” Sunset at Montmajour will be shown in the exhibition Van Gogh at workin the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam from 24 September.

“This work is by Van Gogh”

Extensive research by Louis van Tilborgh and Teio Meedendorp, two senior researchers of the Van Gogh Museum, indicates that this is a work by Van Gogh. “We carried out art historical research into the style, the depiction, use of materials and context, and everything we found indicated that this is a work by Van Gogh. Stylistically and technically speaking, there are a plenty of parallels with other paintings by Van Gogh from the summer of 1888. By means of research into literature and records, we were also capable of tracing the earliest history of the provenance of the painting. It belonged to Theo van Gogh’s collection in 1890 and was sold in 1901.

The location of the painting has been identified – the landscape not far from Arles near the Montmajour hill, with the ruin of the abbey with the same name – and, moreover, there are two letters from the artist from the summer of 1888 that literally refer to the painting. Van Gogh writes that he had not succeeded, which can be explained, because the painting shows very strong and typical characteristics of Van Gogh, next to weaker and less convincing elements.

Technical research has shown that the pigments used correspond with those of Van Gogh’s palette from Arles – including the discolorations that are so characteristic of his oeuvre. He also used the same type of canvas and underpainting for at least one other work, The Rocks from the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, which he painted during the same period and which is highly comparable in terms of style.”

The relatively large painting (93.3 x 73.3 cm) has been technically researched by our restorer Oda van Maanen, in cooperation with the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (Rijkdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed) (RCE), with X-ray photos and computer analyses of the type of canvas used. The pigments used have also been identified. Microscopic research has been carried out into the various layers of paint. Everything supports the conclusion: this work is by Van Gogh.

Transition in his oeuvre

Van Gogh had great ambitions with this painting. With this work he wanted to present himself as a poet among the landscape painters and was deeply disappointed when he felt he had not managed to solve certain problems convincingly. It is true that he was often dissatisfied with his achievements, because he even considered world-famous paintings such as Starry Night(1889) in the Museum of Modern Art in New York and The Sower (1888) in het Kröller-Müller Museum at Otterlo as not all that successful. Van Tilborgh and Meedendorp: “Yet, the tension between dream and reality is what makes this painting all the more attractive. We see Van Gogh visibly working, struggling almost, and this adds to the charm of this work. It belongs to a special group of experimental works that Van Gogh at times esteemed of lesser value than we tend to do nowadays. The painting is even a transitional work. From then on, Van Gogh increasingly felt the need to paint with more and more impasto and more and more layers, and owing to this work, we also get a more balanced insight into to origin of the greatest examples of his drawing – the series of pen and ink drawings that he made the week after he painted Sunset at Montmajour. The painting appears to be inextricably bound up with these pen and ink drawings, they constitute a unity.”

Results on show in Van Gogh at work

This discovery emphasizes the importance of research that the Van Gogh Museum, as expertise centre, carries out into Van Gogh’s painting method and life. The results of this long-term research of the Van Gogh Museum, in cooperation with RCE and Partner in Science Shell Nederland, into Van Gogh’s method of working are now on show in the anniversary exhibition Van Gogh at work, open daily in Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam until 12 January 2014. Sunset at Montmajour will be exhibited to the public as part of this exhibition from 24 September.


oil on canvas-  73.3 cm (28.9 in). Width: 93.3 cm (36.7 in).

Arles, 4 July 1888
Private collection, Norway



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