A Museum Has Renamed a Vegetable Still Life by Van Gogh After a Chef Spotted Something Was Off About the Onions

It took a chef's practiced eye to realize which kind of allium the artist had included in the 1887 still life.

Vincent van Gogh, Red Cabbages and Garlic (1887). Collection of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum has quietly renamed a painting by the famed Dutch artist after realizing that its title referred to the wrong kind of allium. Red Cabbages and Onions, it turns out, should have been called Red Cabbages and Garlic all along.

Over two million visitors a year pass through the doors of the museum (at least in pre-pandemic times), but it took an eagle-eyed chef named Ernst de Witte to realize that Vincent van Gogh had actually painted two heads of garlic in the 1887 still life.

De Witte, age 38, had visited the museum many times, but it was last March when the painting—and its errant title—caught his eye. Those had to be garlic, not onions, he thought.

Red Cabbages and Garlic, as it is now known, has been prominently displayed for decades, including a loan to the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam 1931 to 1973. The work appears to have been exhibited under the inaccurate title—which was assigned posthumously by the artist’s estate—since 1928, when it made its debut at Paul Cassirer’s Berlin gallery.

Chef Ernst de Witte with some of his artwork. Photo courtesy of Ernst de Witte.

Chef Ernst de Witte with some of his artwork. Photo courtesy of Ernst de Witte.

Scholars and experts had studied the painting for nearly a century without anyone questioning what kind of vegetable was pictured in the work.

But De Witte was armed with nearly 20 years of professional cooking experience, having been hired to his first kitchen job at just 17. He’s also been painting for four years—a passion that became increasingly important during lockdown as he began renting a dedicated studio space.

Therefore, De Witte felt confident enough to go to the museum with his conviction. When he reached out about the possible error, the institution asked for evidence supporting his claim.

“I made a PowerPoint together with my wife that showed how Van Gogh painted the garlic with his line work and compared it with another painting in which he painted onions,” De Witte told Artnet News in an email. “And I made a video in which I compared different garlic varieties and onions. I made an overlay drawing on the garlic bulbs in the Van Gogh painting to show that the lines he made actually show the cloves of the garlic.”

Ernst de Witte, <em>Red Cabbage and Garlic</em>. Courtesy of Ernst de Witte.

Ernst de Witte, Red Cabbage and Garlic. Courtesy of Ernst de Witte.

After examining his arguments and consulting with a biologist, the museum agreed.

“We constantly monitor our paintings, and it has happened before that a title was changed because something different was depicted than initially thought,” a spokesperson for the museum told Artnet News.

In November, it informed De Witte that it was changing the name of the painting. (The rechristening has been reported in various Dutch news outlets, including Algemeen Dagblad, De Restaurant Krant, and the De Utrechtse Internet Courant.)

Chef Ernst de Witte's Vincent van Gogh-inspired red cabbage and Garlic dish for Restaurant Feu in Utrecht. Photo courtesy of Ernst de Witte.

Chef Ernst de Witte’s Vincent van Gogh-inspired red cabbage and Garlic dish for Restaurant Feu in Utrecht. Photo courtesy of Ernst de Witte.

“It was a euphoric feeling, and also confirmation that I have a chef/painter’s view of things,” he said. “There is a big cross pollination for me.… The painting side of me helps me a lot with my color use and the composition of my dishes.”

The experience with the Van Gogh Museum actually inspired a new dish at Restaurant Feu in Utrecht, where De Witte is head chef—as well as a painting of his own featuring the same vegetables, naturally.

“The dish is poached red cabbage in an oven roasted garlic bouillon, a crème of smoked garlic, red cabbage coulis, red cabbage powder, and a vinaigrette with absinthe, lemon balm and tarragon,” he said. “As soon as the vinaigrette comes in contact with the red cabbage components, the colors start to fade, just as the red/blue pigments in Van Gogh’s paintings.”

(The Van Gogh Museum’s online catalogue entry for Red Cabbages and Garlic, notes that “The tablecloth is now greyish-blue but was originally purple.”)

De Witte pairs his Van Gogh-themed dish with a beer brewed with absinthe, the artist’s drink of choice. “Our guests,” he added, “are in love.”

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