In September 2013 the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam announced the discovery (and authentication) of a previously unknown painting by Vincent van Gogh. Called Sunset at Montmajour, it dates from 1888, when Van Gogh was painting in Arles.
According to museum director Axel Rüger, it is not merely a rarity for a new painting to be added to Van Gogh's oeuvre (body of work) but the large size of the painting (93.3x73.3cm, just over 36.7x28 inches) and the period in Van Gogh's career make it a tremendous discovery.
"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 Sunflowers, The 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."
Extensive research was done before the announcement was made (obviously!). This was led by museum senior researchers Louis van Tilborgh and Teio Meedendorp, who "carried out art historical research into the style, the depiction, use of materials and context". They concluded that stylistically and technically speaking, there are a plenty of parallels with other paintings by Van Gogh from the summer of 1888. They also established the earliest provenance of the painting, that it had been in Theo van Gogh's collection in 1890 and was sold in 1901.
Vincent van Gogh wrote about the painting in his letters, the location of which is Montmajour hill near Arles, with the ruin of the abbey in the distance (detail, top right). It's about five kilometers northeast of Arles, an area he painted several times.
"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. ...the sun was pouring its very yellow rays over the bushes and the ground, absolutely a shower of gold. ... 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." Letter to Theo van Gogh, 5 July 1888
Until now it was thought the study he refers to was The Rocks, in the from the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, though this lacks some of the compositional elements mentioned. Technical research revealed the pigments used in "Sunset at Montmajour" correspond with those of Van Gogh's palette from Arles and that the type of canvas and underpainting matches "The Rocks".
The painting is one in which Van Gogh was experimenting, making greater use of impasto and increasing the number of layers of paint. He laid-in the composition with a bluish green, then worked alla prima, and later back in his studio added some accents to touch-dry paint, as was his practice.
If you look at the brushstrokes, there's a liveliness and decisiveness to it, a joy in the application of the paint and mixing of colors on the canvas (detail, middle). If you're familiar with his tree paintings, the tree trunks will echo other paintings (detail, bottom right).
How this painting remained unidentified for so long, lies in the family story that an authoritative figure suggested soon after it was purchased that it was a fake or wrongly attributed, so it got banished to the attic. Subsequent owners approached the Van Gogh Museum in 1991, which decided that it was not genuine, a decision now reversed thanks to research made possible by advances in technology. It seems art materials can't deceive, unlike appearances.
1. 'Sunset at Montmajour': a newly discovered painting by Vincent van Gogh, by Louis van Tilborgh, Teio Meedendorp, and Oda van Maanen, published in The Burlington Magazine, October 2013
2. Van Gogh Museum press information, 9 September 2013