Anyone looking closely at the blossoming orchards that Van Gogh painted in the spring of 1888 is soon faced with the question of what kind of trees these are: apple, pear or peach?
Literature from the past century does not help a great deal, as perfectly demonstrated by the recently restored painting Peach Tree in Blossom from the museum’s collection.
Peach Tree in Blossom
Van Gogh never described the work explicitly, although we know it was one of the ‘6 paintings of blossoming fruit trees’ letter 590he produced between 25 and 30 March 1888. The urbanite Andries Bonger, brother of Theo’s wife Jo, described it in 1890 as ‘Pommiers en fleur’ – apple trees in blossom. Fifteen years later, in 1905, there was talk of an apricot tree, followed in 1937 by the new suggestion of a pear tree. The two latter possibilities existed side by side for many years, until the editors of De la Faille’s catalogue raisonné came up with yet another alternative in 1970, an almond tree!
In an attempt to settle the debate, the museum turned to the biologist Hans den Nijs, whose suggestion of a peach tree makes a lot more sense, given the way the tree in the painting is flowering. All the same, some doubt remained because of the discrepancy in colour: in reality, peach blossoms are somewhat harder in tone than the light pink we find in the painting today. It was suspected, however, that the paint had discoloured – a fact since confirmed by technical examination during the production of the collection catalogue. Van Gogh used light-sensitive, transparent red geranium lake (eosin) for his painting, with a second, more opaque type of lake, probably cochineal. The blossoms, for instance, were originally a darker shade of pink than now, which removes any lingering doubt as to the identification of the tree.
Paintings, like people, inevitably get older, adversely affecting not only the paint but also the support. The work was praised in 1905 for its ‘sense of brightness and blankness’, but this effect diminished as the linen degraded and it was penetrated by old resin and wax from a lining procedure performed in the late 1920s. Fortunately, the recent removal of varnish and dirt has brought the work closer to its original ‘brightness and blankness’. It also reveals that not just one but two butterflies are represented: a Brimstone fluttering around the top of the tree and an Orange-tip at the bottom. Van Gogh left a space for the Brimstone butterfly when preparing the work, while the Orange-tip was added later.