Senior Researcher Teio Meedendorp tells the story of a lesser-known painting by Vincent van Gogh: Pollard Birch. For years, the title was a source of confusion and the depicted tree was not recognized as such. The work was even stolen once.
Van Gogh painted this charming ‘portrait’ of a pollard birch in the autumn of 1884, somewhere near Nuenen. It is a powerful, straightforward view of a typically shaped tree next to a path, with some autumnal bushes in the background. The long, spindly twigs are still in leaf and are ready to be pollarded.
Unlike willows and alders, birches are not pruned in winter, but earlier. Ideally in August or September, before the tree’s sap flow calms. The pruning had a specific function, as it provided so-called ‘amenity wood’: birch twigs were transformed into besoms.
In the painting, the underside of the trunk lights up against the dark background, while the upper part of the tree is enshrouded in shadows, creating an attractive contrast against the bright blue and white of the sky. This illumination also makes it easy to discern the characteristic white birchbark, with the dark stripes and eyes.
Remarkably enough, however, it took a long time before the depicted tree was recognized as birch. From the first time that this painting was publicly exhibited, in November 1903, the tree was thought to be a willow.
It was displayed as Willow Tree at a sales exhibition at the Oldenzeel Gallery in Rotterdam, and J.-B. de la Faille recorded the work under number F195 as Le saule (The Willow) in the catalogue raisonné that he published in 1928.
Unfamiliar with Pollard Birches
People in the west of the Netherlands were probably relatively unfamiliar with pollard birches, as the trees were mostly found in a number of eastern and southern provinces. At the same sales exhibition in 1903, another painting with no less than five pollard birches was given the neutral title Landscape with Trees, and was subsequently referred to as Les Hêtres étêtés (The Pollarded Beeches) by De la Faille in 1928. In his 1930 book about Van Gogh, W.F. Douwes adjusted the title to Pollard Willows.
Both errors were corrected in 1937 by Walther Vanbeselaere, who while researching Van Gogh’s Dutch period, had read a letter written by Van Gogh in April 1884, in which the artist mentioned having made ‘a thing with Pollard birches’. De la Faille even included this letter as a reference with the painting, but it appears to have subsequently been completely forgotten. All the same, this piece would on occasion still be called ‘Pollard Beeches’.
Restoring the name
The rehabilitation of the solitary Pollard Birch was a longer time coming. It was not mentioned in the letters, so any foothold that this would have offered was lacking, and the very same Vanbeselaere was of the opinion that the tree was a Weeping Willow. However, the work would go through life as Pollard Willow until well into the nineties: 1999 to be precise. Five years previous, the Dutch banking firm Van Lanschot became the proud owner of this little tree, which had been in private hands since time immemorial, and was largely unknown to the public at large.
In 1997, an entire article was dedicated to the painting in the art journal Tableau, entitled ‘Vincent’s pollard willow’. Two years later, the gem was stolen from Van Lanschot’s headquarters in s-Hertogenbosch, and on 15 May 1999, a Teletext message announced that a ‘pollarded birch tree’ had been stolen, not a pollard willow.
This correct identification failed to stick, as the following summer, the Kunst & Antiek Journaal mentioned a stolen Willow Tree by Van Gogh, and the work was dubbed Pollard Willow when it was – thankfully – recovered in 2006. A year later, in a large article exploring the curious theft, de Volkskrant newspaper reported that ‘experts’ were in no doubt: it was a ‘pollarded birch tree’. The identity of the experts was never established, but the article brought a definitive end to the Pollard Willow.
Made in which year?
De la Faille dated the work to autumn 1885, and this also held out for many years. The painting has even been interpreted as the final work that Van Gogh made before departing for Antwerp at the end of 1885, although nothing points to this. In an internal memo at the Van Gogh Museum, which conducted authenticity research on the work shortly before Van Lanschot purchased it in 1994, it was noted that it was ‘1885 according to Faille and others, but it could also be 1884’.
Nevertheless, the final letter to the owner stuck with the dating offered by De la Faille and Jan Hulsker in their oeuvre catalogues, namely October-November 1885, and the title Pollard Willow was also used. However, doubt continued to creep in. The German Van Gogh researcher Roland Dorn nuanced the dating when he included the painting on loan in the exhibition Van Gogh und die Haager Schule in 1996 in Vienna. He still believed it to be a Kopfweide (pollard willow), but he concluded that Van Gogh had started the work in the spring of 1884, and made additions in autumn 1885, which likely resulted in the associations with the Pollard Birches.
We now think that the work should be dated to autumn 1884. The contrast with the autumn views of 1885 is simply too distinct, while the execution appears to share more similarities with the Pollard Birches of spring 1884. A comparison with a birch tree between the poplars in the painting Poplars near Nuenen from autumn 1885 clearly shows that Van Gogh was using his brush much more loosely, with short dashes and dots to create the trees; a forerunner of his later, even more refined and more brightly coloured Impressionistic strokes.
Senior Researcher, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam