Interview series: Van Gogh viewed in context
Interview Ella Hendriks: Vanished colours: The reconstruction of 'The bedroom'
Research can teach you a lot, but in treating a painting you come even closer to it; you have to understand it through and through. The microscope makes a whole world visible, enabling you to work with immense precision. I want to be familiar with every square centimetre. ‘I’ve literally examined Van Gogh’s works under the microscope. I want to become familiar with every square centimetre. If you can do that, then in some small way, you’ve truly made them your own.’
Ella Hendriks (1960) is senior conservator at the Van Gogh Museum. She has examined and restored numerous works by Vincent van Gogh. With the recent reconstruction of The bedroom, which she will be discussing in her Sunday lecture on 1 September, an effort was made to produce a digital reconstruction of Van Gogh’s works in their original colours.
Hendriks sees herself as a privileged individual: ‘It is so extraordinary to have physical contact with Van Gogh’s work.
Van Gogh and discolouration
It has been proven that many of the original colours in Van Gogh’s oeuvre have altered with time. Hendriks has made a detailed study of this phenomenon in recent years: ‘By collaborating closely with scientists I have learnt a great deal about the use of colour and discolouration; by now I have acquired almost as much expertise in this area as Van Gogh himself, who knew an enormous amount about theories of colour and the science of his day!’ she laughs.
Understanding of discolouration
Professor Roy Berns, director of Munsell Color Science Laboratory (USA), with whom Hendriks collaborated closely in the reconstruction of The bedroom, provided the necessary scientific basis by making colour measurements and mathematical calculations to enable the digital restoration of the colours. The increased awareness of the phenomenon of discolouration also influenced the treatment of the painting itself. ‘There is a big difference between this and earlier restorations of The bedroom’, remarks Hendriks. ‘In 1931 and 1958 the work was treated by the same conservator. Initially he thought that he had painstakingly restored the painting to its “original state”, as he wrote. Now we know that that is completely impossible, since a painting changes continuously from the moment it leaves the easel.’ In 1958 this conservator indeed had to confront the fact that the colours in the painting had changed since 1931, making it necessary for him to retouch his own retouches.
Best possible palette
‘We know a lot more now than we did in 1958’, she carries on. ‘We know the risks and are better able to reduce them, for instance by limiting exposure to light as much as possible to retard the discolouration process. You can't stop it completely, however, and that's something you have to bear in mind.’ Thanks to Berns’s work, Hendriks now possessed the best possible palette with which to retouch the painting. On the basis of his colour measurements on the painting, he was able to advise a mixture of pigments for every damaged area that needed retouching, a mixture that would correspond precisely, at all times (in other words, under different light sources) to the original colour surrounding it.
Digital colour reconstructions
Traces of the original colours can sometimes be found, under the frame for instance. This makes it possible to build up an impression of what the painting once looked like, but to actually see it, you need a digital reconstruction. These traces make it possible to create that reconstruction. With the Munsell Color Science Laboratory and a team of external and internal museum specialists, Hendriks succeeded, with The bedroom, in making a complete digital reconstruction of this kind for the very first time: ‘Although it will never be an exact replica of the painting, we now know far better what the work originally looked like.’
Reassessing Van Gogh
This is the beginning of a four-year project involving the digital reconstruction of other works by Van Gogh. The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) is funding the ReViGo (Reassessing Vincent van Gogh) project, which aims to create digital reconstructions of other works in the collection with the aid of an interdisciplinary team of experts. ‘In this project I'm working alongside computer technologists, physicists and art historians, for instance’, explains Hendriks. ‘It's incredibly interesting. The painting Snow-covered field with a harrow (after Millet), for instance, consists of extremely monochrome, cool colours. It has always been said that this use of colour reflects Van Gogh’s solitary mood when he was alone outside in the natural world, but is this correct? This work too has undergone discolouration with the passage of time. I'm very curious to see its digital reconstruction!’
Find out more on the restoration of The bedroom
Read the blog Bedroom secrets that was written during the restoration of the painting or watch this video:
Inteview Oda van Maanen: 'You're never really done'
On the work of a conservator
Oda van Maanen (b. 1977) is a conservator at the Van Gogh Museum. In recent months, she’s been restoring two works that are now on display again in their full glory as part of Van Gogh at work: John Peter Russell’s Female nude and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s Young woman at a table (Poudre de riz).
‘I finished Russell just in time,’ Oda says. The painting had to be moved from the conservation studio to the museum in mid-April, by which point she’d been working on it for almost three months. This study of a nude woman has large dimensions. ‘Russell was fairly well off. Maybe he could afford a lot of canvas!’ Oda comments, laughing.
The aim of restoring Female nude was to remove the yellowed layer of varnish and discoloured earlier retouches that were disruptive to the picture. Removing layers of varnish is complicated. Conservators often work with mixtures of organic solvents, and in some cases, the varnish and the paint turned out to be about equally soluble. It was then necessary to find a mixture and a method that would dissolve the yellowed varnish without affecting the paint. The initial testing of such methods is nerve-wracking. ‘You do small-scale tests along the edge, removing the discoloured varnish from the paint layer’, Oda explains. ‘Once you’ve selected the right method and can justify your decision, then it’s all right, then you make it your own.’ Usually, the varnish is removed with cotton swabs dipped in the chosen solvent. For this treatment, she ultimately decided to remove the varnish with the aid of solvent-soaked tissues. That made it possible to avoid the mechanical friction caused by a cotton swab. ‘In this case, friction could cause the solvent to seep into the paint layer under the varnish, which is obviously not the intention. You apply a tissue impregnated with solvent to the painting briefly so that the solvent can do its work and the tissue can absorb the yellowed varnish. When you carefully remove the tissue, the varnish comes off with it.’
In the case of Toulouse-Lautrec’s Young woman at a table (Poudre de riz), Oda’s job was to clean the painting and to determine whether a layer of varnish had been used. She found that no varnish had been used; instead, she had to remove dirt directly from the paint layer. There was also a kind of residue underneath this dirt, which gave the surface a dull, uniform appearance. The museum believes that this residue was the result of an earlier restoration. This layer was removed along with the dirt.
‘Toulouse-Lautrec’s work is known for its matt aesthetic’, Oda says. ‘When he painted this, he was still in the early stages of his development toward that style. Here he used canvas and a non-absorbent ground, and as a result the paint layer was not all that matt.’ Later, Toulouse-Lautrec worked with supports other than canvas, such as cardboard, which is highly absorbent. Young woman at a table illustrates an interesting stage in his development. By removing the dirt and residue, we have made the nuances of Toulouse-Lautrec’s paint visible once again.
Oda adds, ‘For purposes of comparison, I looked for information on how other conservators have treated works by Toulouse-Lautrec, and I studied what he wrote about his intended artistic result. So you do prepare thoroughly before you set to work. Not a great deal is known about Toulouse-Lautrec, but enough to make a responsible choice.’
Oda sees restoration as a kind of treasure hunt. ‘Both prior to treatment and during restoration, you find pieces of the puzzle, which tell you about what happened to the work of art in the past.’ A painting is restored about once every twenty years on average. Toulouse-Lautrec’s painting was last treated in 1961–1962, when it was still under the care of the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. ‘The conservator there lined the painting because it had a small tear. This is a technique we would no longer use’, Oda explains.
She found records of that restoration in the Stedelijk archives. ‘That’s unusual’, she says. ‘Not everything is as carefully researched and documented as our work on Van Gogh.’ She also notes how remarkable it is that a receipt for the painting has been preserved, which shows that Theo van Gogh paid Toulouse-Lautrec 150 guilders for it on 12 January 1888.
It took just a few days to prepare for the restoration of Female nude. Most of the time was spent on the actual restoration work. For Young woman at a table, the opposite was true: research and deliberation took up most of the time, and the final removal of surface dirt and residue was done in little more than two weeks. ‘“Done” is a strong word,’ Oda says with a smile. ‘Conservators aren’t quick to take pride in their work. You always think, “If only I’d had more time.” In my opinion, you’re never really done. It’s a good thing there are deadlines, as long as they’re realistic!’
Interview Marije Vellekoop: You won't get far on an island of your own
Marije Vellekoop (b. 1969) is the Van Gogh Museum’s Head of Collections and has been actively involved in studying Van Gogh’s working methods for the past eight years. She started out by researching his drawings, and since 2008 she has led the interdisciplinary research project Van Gogh’s Studio Practice, a close partnership between the Van Gogh Museum, Shell Nederland and the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (RCE).
‘The first three years were really a preliminary exploration,’ Marije explains. ‘By the time I became the project leader, it was clear where the opportunities and difficulties lay. I took advantage of those insights and thoroughly reorganised the whole endeavour.’ In the intervening years, Marije has managed and coordinated the project, acting as the link between a group of approximately thirty participating researchers and the steering group (made up of the three organisations).
Interests and expectations
Marije says, ‘Managing interests and expectations has not always been easy – especially in the beginning, when each organisation had its own way of speaking – but over time we’ve become genuinely equal partners.’ The RCE has analysed paint samples and pigments, thus making an enormous contribution to our understanding of the composition of Van Gogh’s palette, of which pigments he used when. Shell also performed analyses of paint samples and pigments, determining the precise make-up of each paint layer. That made it possible to recreate the recipes, a highly educational process. Conservators from the Van Gogh Museum and researchers used these old recipes to make reconstructions, from which they learned a great deal. ‘It was our very close working relationship that allowed us to do that,’ Marije emphasises. ‘We are all experts in our fields, but if we had remained isolated on “islands” of our own, we would never have made any progress.’
A great deal of research has now taken place, with many interesting conclusions. From 24 to 26 June, the researchers presented their findings at a scholarly symposium in the Van Gogh Museum. ‘This is accompanied by a collection of articles describing most of the research results. There are about 20 in all, but there could easily have been more,’ Marije says. ‘This kind of research is never truly finished. Every research question leads to ten new questions. And of course, we will go on looking for answers. But all projects must end, and researchers must pick a time to make their findings public. This year seemed like a good choice, because the Van Gogh Museum is celebrating its 40th anniversary.’
Looking back, Marije recalls many special moments: ‘For example, we jointly examined some paintings that were at the museum temporarily, such as the loans for the exhibition Van Gogh and the colours of the night in 2009. We would discuss our observations with each other. Occasionally, we were permitted to remove these paintings from their frames and examine them under the microscope or a strong light. Some of them came from private collections. Having the opportunity to examine them is truly rare, a unique experience.’
Marije also remembers special moments when myths were debunked – or confirmed. ‘Sometimes Van Gogh created a myth, for example the myth that he was a very fast worker. He wrote that he had completed a particular painting in one go, but we discovered this wasn’t true. We could see that he had worked on the painting in several stages, adding new layers after the paint had dried. Apparently he had his reasons for telling a different story!’
Questions for Van Gogh
‘That’s the kind of thing you’d love to ask him about,’ she continues. Even after so many years of research, some questions remain unanswered. ‘In his early work, Van Gogh applied paint thickly and covered the entire surface of the canvas. Unlike his later, more thinly painted works, these early paintings do not lend themselves to infrared examination of the use of perspective or underdrawings. I’d like to ask him about his early years, about where he got the idea for the perspective frame and when he used it for the first time.’
When Marije is asked what she thinks the next step should be after this research project, it doesn’t take her long to come up with an answer. ‘Originally, we intended to look at Van Gogh in the context of his time and his contemporaries. We wanted to investigate how they influenced each other.’ But it proved very difficult to find much information about other painters. ‘We’ve learned such a great deal about Van Gogh, but findings about his contemporaries are often widely scattered and sometimes unavailable to us, as are their works of art’, she says. ‘Personally, I would like to delve into Toulouse-Lautrec. We know that he and Van Gogh influenced each other and spent time together, but we know so very little about him. Few of his art works are in the Netherlands, and when we visited the Musée Toulouse-Lautrec in Albi, we could look at the works there but not submit them to a full examination.’
Not all museums are equipped for materials research or technical studies, and many do not have conservation studios of their own. Of course, there are some museums with the expertise and equipment to conduct independent research, but they are the exceptions. ‘What we do here is rather special,’ Marije says in closing. ‘Fellow researchers all over the world are keeping an eye on us and our discoveries. We’re truly at the cutting edge of our field. Now we would like to see other organisations set up similar research projects on other topics, artists, periods and styles!’
Interview Nienke Bakker: The job of the curator
Nienke Bakker (b. 1972) is an exhibition curator at the Van Gogh Museum. For seven years she has been conducting intensive art-historical research into the letters written by Vincent van Gogh, especially those from his years in France. Nienke is the curator of the anniversary exhibition Van Gogh at Work and was one of the researchers in the project Van Gogh’s Studio Practice, which forms the basis for the exhibition.
Among the questions which Nienke has been investigating, and which are addressed in the exhibition, is how Van Gogh learned his craft from others – not so much his formal training as the possible influence of his contemporaries. ‘Of course, we have his letters, but if you want a more complete picture of Van Gogh and how he lived and worked, you also have to look at him in relationship to the people with whom he interacted and collaborated, the environment in which he moved, the art he saw. Who did he learn from? What works of art inspired him? Which manuals did he read? And what did his artist friends say about him?’
The influence of contemporaries
One of Nienke’s research questions was what works of art might have inspired Van Gogh: ‘What exhibitions could he have seen? The Millet exhibition in 1887, for instance – he must have seen that one! His brother Theo owned the exhibition catalogue; they must have gone together. We know that Millet had a profound influence on Van Gogh. So we figured out what works were on display at the exhibition.’
Van Gogh sometimes painted with others, and this influenced his independent work. Nienke explains, ‘We know, for instance, that he painted with Van Rappard in Nuenen in 1884. We examined Van Rappard’s painting The weaver and found that he had used the same colours and the same kind of canvas as Van Gogh. Either they worked together or else they bought materials together in Eindhoven. Even though they didn’t use the same kind of paint, the way they applied it, their technique, was the same.’
Research into Van Gogh’s working methods has also revealed that Toulouse-Lautrec and Van Gogh used the technique of thin application of paint at the same time. ‘But we don’t think Van Gogh was imitating Toulouse-Lautrec, as some have claimed’, Nienke continues. ‘It was typical for Van Gogh to move from one extreme to another, from gobs of paint to diluted paint. But for him, thin paint turned out to be just an experiment. It didn’t really suit his style, but it was an essential step forward in his search for his own path. After his Paris period, he returned to his own distinctive thick brushstroke, modelling the paint almost like clay.’
A creative trio: Van Gogh, Bernard and Gauguin
Nienke’s favourite topic is the artistic interchange between Van Gogh, Bernard, and Gauguin. ‘I’m tremendously fascinated by the way they inspired each other and gave each other ideas from a distance.’ Van Gogh first met the painter Emile Bernard in Paris, in the atelier of Fernand Cormon, and they later ran into each other in Père Tanguy’s paint shop. Although Bernard did not become nearly as well known as Van Gogh, he provided the Dutch painter with a powerful creative stimulus. Following advice from Van Gogh, Bernard then went to visit Paul Gauguin in Brittany, and those two artists painted together and influenced each other. At that point, Van Gogh was in Arles, and Gauguin joined him there after leaving Brittany.
He brought work by Bernard (Breton women) with him to show Van Gogh. ‘So they all influenced each other without the three of them ever being in one place!’ Nienke says. ‘For example, on Gauguin’s recommendation, Van Gogh began painting “from imagination”, a method that Gauguin and Bernard preferred to painting from nature. The result was The sower, a Van Gogh painting of a completely imaginary scene.’
Copying his own work
On Sunday 5 May, Nienke will give a talk entitled Sunflowers squared about Van Gogh’s copies of his own work. Van Gogh had the fascinating habit of making multiple versions of many paintings. Nienke says, ‘He painted Sunflowers in Arles, partly to decorate his house and partly to impress Gauguin, to whom he had previously given two small sunflower still lifes. He hung two large paintings of vases of sunflowers in Gauguin’s bedroom in the Yellow House. Gauguin thought they were wonderful and dearly wanted one. Van Gogh then painted two copies for him, but these never actually came into Gauguin's possession.’
During the initial period of the exhibition Van Gogh at Work, we will present two versions of Sunflowers; in addition to the one in our collection, we will have the Sunflowers from the National Gallery on loan. This masterpiece very rarely leaves London. In the exhibition, the two versions of Sunflowers will be on either side of the painting La Berceuse (‘Woman rocking a cradle’), which we briefly have on loan from the Stedelijk Museum. Nienke explains this combination of paintings: ‘La Berceuse is a portrait of Madame Roulin, the wife of the postman in Arles. With a cord in her hand that is attached to a cradle, rocking her child to sleep, she is the archetypal mother. It was Van Gogh's own preference to place her between two versions of Sunflowers, forming a triptych with La Berceuse as a modern Virgin Mary, with flowers like candles on both sides. These yellow side panels bring out the orange in Madame Roulin’s face, which stands out against the green.’
The anniversary exhibition
Right now Nienke is busy preparing for the exhibition: ‘Van Gogh was very conscious of how his works affected one another, whether they harmonised or formed a contrast. That’s exactly the kind of thing I think about when I mount an exhibition. I guess that’s one small similarity between us,’ she says, laughing. Her personal favourite among the works in the exhibition is Père Tanguy, on loan from the Musée Rodin in Paris. This is another piece that hardly ever goes out on loan, and Nienke is proud that the Van Gogh Museum has managed to bring this special portrait to the Netherlands for Van Gogh at Work: ‘The painting tells an incredible range of different stories – about Van Gogh, his friendships, his materials, his sources of inspiration, and his working methods. To me, this painting truly represents “Van Gogh at work”.’