New Van Gogh discovery brings excitement to the Phillips Collection

September 9, 2013

News about the discovery of a newly-authenticated Vincent Van Gogh painting – previously dismissed as a fake – set the art world abuzz on Monday. It also caused some excitement here in Washington, given that the city’s first Van Gogh exhibit in years is opening at the Phillips Collection next month.


Van Gogh Museum director Axel Rueger, left, and senior researcher Louis van Tilborgh, right, unveil “Sunset at Montmajour” during a press conference at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

In case you missed it, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam confirmed that a long-lost landscape painting, abandoned in an attic for many years, was indeed created by Van Gogh in 1888. A Norwegian industrialist bought the painting in 1908, according to the AP, only to hide it in his attic after an ambassador told him it was a fake. The painting was found again when the man died in the 1970s, but the Van Gogh museum declined to authenticate the work.

Decades later, after a detailed search of Van Gogh’s records, experts confirmed that the painting, portraying “twisting oak trees, bushes and sky,” truly was created by the Dutch painter.

Dorothy Kosinski, director of the Phillips Collection, was thrilled by the revelation of the painting – not only because it relates to the upcoming exhibit (Van Gogh Repetitions, opening Oct. 12), but it’s a powerful example of the importance of continuing scientific and scholarly work in museums.

“There’s so much that’s changed and continues to change, and it’s a wonderful revelation – especially to the layperson – of the importance of the work we do,” Kosinski said, talking about new technology that helps curators discover new conclusions about art. These days, curators use technical scientific analysis to look at x-rays that offer clues beneath layers of paint, and search massive digital libraries for newly-translated letters and records to get a better sense of an artist’s timeline.

While the new Van Gogh painting won’t change anything for the Phillips’ exhibit, Kosinski said the discovery points to what will be exciting about the museum’s show – the premise being, what was Van Gogh trying to do? Now, there are even more unanswered questions, though that’s what makes the art world exciting.

After all, art history isn’t static – it’s a very dynamic realm, Kosinski said, which is why curators and scholars are sent all over the world to investigate these types of paintings. One moment, a picture will be seen as boring or unimportant; but with new knowledge and new eyes on it, the image could suddenly be reinvigorated.

And that’s where museum exhibits come in. “The real trick is, as opposed to just publishing things in a book, is bringing together actual objects, which is so challenging and arduous and expensive,” Kosinski said. “That’s really the drama of bringing to the public a gift like that, of being able to physically experience these new insights about the works that they love so much.”

Emily Yahr is an entertainment reporter and pop culture blogger for the Style section. She joined the Post in May 2008, a week before she graduated from the University of Maryland, and worked on Lisa de Moraes' TV Column and blog.
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