3. Authenticity: A Painting Moves Upstairs
Updated: May 26
In March 2019 I taught a museum studies graduate seminar in Washington, D.C. We visited 13 museums in 10 days; when we weren’t in a museum talking to curators, educators, architects, and registrars, we were in a classroom talking about museums. Flowers and Fruit was not on my mind. Getting our twenty students from museum to museum across Washington was. One evening, though, I checked my email and found that my husband and a close friend had both sent me the same article: “Disputed Painting Is a Real van Gogh, Researchers Say,” read the headline.
Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art
“A painting at a Connecticut museum that has long been thought to be by Vincent van Gogh has been authenticated by Dutch researchers,” said the Associated Press. Researchers at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam had verified the painting, a still life of poppies in a vase on a table, as dating from 1886, the year that van Gogh moved to Paris. Vase with Poppies had been in the collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, since 1957, when it was accepted as part of a bequest from the novelist Anne Parrish Titzell that also included works by Claude Monet and Edgar Degas. In 1990 a leading van Gogh scholar had questioned the attribution of the work to van Gogh, and the museum had taken it off display and put it in storage. But recently, researchers at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam analyzed the “canvas, ground layer, pigments and style.” They researched the image and found records of it having been exhibited in New York in 1913, at the Armory Show, which introduced modern art to America. And they x-rayed the canvas and found a ghostly image of a self-portrait. In the early fall of 1886, van Gogh wrote to a friend that he could not afford to pay models and so had spent the summer painting flow flowers. He could not afford new canvases, either, and occasionally recycled them—painting over work he wasn’t pleased with.
News about the new van Gogh Poppies made newspapers around the world. The museum brought the triumphant painting back upstairs into the gallery and hung it in a place of honor. They even threw Poppies a three-day party that featured, among others, the bell choir from the local Methodist church, the Wethersfield High School Choralaires, and floral arranging demonstrations. A few months ago, Vase with Poppies travelled to Potsdam to join an exhibition of other still lifes by Van Gogh.
With one discovery, Poppies had gone from a worthless canvas to a priceless masterpiece.