4. Authenticity & Reattributions
Updated: May 26, 2020
Poppies got my attention because the circumstances—the regional museum, the work questioned by experts—were so similar to Flowers and Fruit. Like Vase with Poppies, Flowers and Fruit does not jump off the canvas as similar to the artist’s other works. Take a look at Van Gogh's Starry Night.
You've probably seen it thousands of times. It will look familiar. You may not be able to say, oh right, Van Gogh, St Rémy, June 1889, a year and a bit before he died—but you’ll be able to say, oh yeah, that painting.
Now look at this painting by Paul Gauguin: Tahitian Women on a Beach. It may not be as familiar as Starry Night, but I’ll bet it reminds you vaguely of something. It looks like a Gauguin, the way that Starry Night looks like a Van Gogh. Vase with Poppies and Flowers and Fruit look like impressionist still lifes. Both are paintings that could hang on your wall without invading your subconscious. Vase with Poppies was denied by experts for decades, just as Flowers and Fruit has been. My email correspondents sent me the article because they saw the similarities in the paintings’ stories. It was their way of pointing out that attributions can change. And it brought Flowers and Fruit, and the question of authenticity, back to mind. The re-attribution of Vase with Poppies to Van Gogh, after it had been questioned by an earlier generation of scholars and experts, illustrated the changeable nature of what we think we know about art. As Louis van Tilborgh, senior researcher at the Van Gogh Museum and professor of Art History at the University of Amsterdam said this spring apropos of the continuing research: “One can say that slowly but surely real progress is being made in Van Gogh studies.” Note that it’s not called Van Gogh Studied; it’s ongoing. It’s studies—present tense. The study of Van Gogh is not yet complete.
Vase with Poppies is not the only work to have been questioned as an authentic Van Gogh; there’s a long and salacious history of questionable Van Goghs that stops just short of people being knifed in dark alleys.* Art experts have been fighting about Van Goghs, genuine and faked, since the 1920s. The Dutch sociologist Henk Tromp published a study of these battles a few years ago. He was as interested in the way that art experts decided whether or not a painting was authentic as he was in the paintings themselves. “Art experts,” he writes, “make it their business to acquire, increase, and maintain their authority. They use their knowledge as specialists in an attempt to gain intellectual ascendancy over a public of colleagues and laymen.”**
What does this mean about authenticity?
*Henk Tromp, 2010. A Real Van Gogh: How the Art World Struggles with Truth. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2010, p. 14.
**Tromp, p. 16.