Historians Were Unsure for Decades if This Still Life Was by Van Gogh. Then They Found a Ghostly Self-Portrait of the Artist Painted Underneath

Technological advances have helped scholars confirm that the work is indeed by the beloved Dutch painter.

Vincent Van Gogh, Vase with Poppies (circa 1886). Courtesy Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art.
Vincent van Gogh, Vase with Poppies (circa 1886). Courtesy Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art.

A long-disputed painting in the collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, has been officially designated as a work by Vincent van Gogh by leading Dutch researchers.

The painting, Vase with Poppies (circa 1886), entered the Hartford museum’s collection in 1957. But in 1990, Walter Feilchenfeldt, a scholar of Post-Impressionist art, cast doubt on the picture, after which it was removed from display and put into storage.

Now, aided by new technology, scholars from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam have concluded that the work is indeed by Van Gogh, and was painted shortly after he moved to Paris.

The painting was re-attributed to the artist after an analysis of its paint, style, and linen support confirmed its authenticity. In the course of their work, scholars also learned that the painting was exhibited at the legendary 1913 Armory show in New York, which is often credited with introducing Modernism to American audiences. 

But especially surprising was the discovery they made through a digital X-ray of the painting: a ghostly self-portrait in profile of Van Gogh, which lent further confirmation to their findings.

X-ray (rotated and annotated), <i>Vase with Poppies</i> (circa 1886) by Vincent Van Gogh.

X-ray (rotated and annotated), Vase with Poppies (circa 1886) by Vincent van Gogh.
Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art Conservation Lab.

“This extraordinary collaboration and harnessing of technology and professional discernment simply not available until now is a reminder of the opportunities today to both enrich discourse in the field and take stock in our collections,” Thomas Loughman, director and chief executive of the Wadsworth Atheneum, said in a statement.

Vase with Poppies is one of several “floater” paintings, the term for unauthenticated artworks believed to be by Van Gogh. “Some of these floaters even turned out to be firmly anchored in Van Gogh’s oeuvre, and Vase with Poppies, I am happy to say, is one of them,” Van Gogh Museum researcher Louis van Tilborgh said in a statement.

Researchers say the artwork fits stylistically with other floral paintings the artist made shortly after arriving in Paris in spring 1886. Van Gogh took advantage of easy access to flowers as he reinvented his stylistic approach after two years of depicting peasant life in Nuenen, according to the museum.

The newly re-attributed painting is part of a collection of French Impressionist works gifted to the Hartford museum upon the death of Anne Parrish Titzell, who lived in the nearby town of Redding, according to the Hartford Courant. Works in that bequest also included a Claude Monet water lily painting and a beach scene by Edgar Degas, among other works. 

After its return to Hartford, the painting will be loaned to an exhibit at the Museum Barberini in Potsdam, Germany, from October to February for an exhibition that focuses on Van Gogh’s “floater” still lifes and includes works recently attributed to the artist.

The Atheneum now officially has two Van Goghs in its collection. The other is a self-portrait painted in 1887. Vase with Poppies will go back on display at the museum next month.


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