The Van Gogh Museum, now that it is allowed to respond to the publication Vincent van Gogh. The Lost Arles Sketchbook and not only to the authenticity of the drawings themselves, has tightened its earlier statement and sees no reason to change its opinion; below are new arguments for the museum’s experts’ opinion that the drawings are imitations of Van Gogh's work and that the notebook raises many questions.
For some time, the Van Gogh Museum has been aware of the album of drawings that has now been published under the title of Vincent van Gogh: The Lost Arles Sketchbook. At an earlier stage (in 2008 and 2012), our experts gave their opinion on its authenticity – an opinion not mentioned in the publication – at the request of various owners of drawings from the album.
Our researchers and curators are happy about every new work that can correctly be attributed to Van Gogh, but on the basis of high-quality photographs sent to them of 56 of the 65 drawings now published, they concluded that these could not be attributed to Vincent van Gogh.
After examining a number of the original drawings in 2013 and reading the recent publication, our experts have not changed their minds. Their opinion, based on years of research on Van Gogh's drawings in the museum's own collection and elsewhere – the Van Gogh Museum holds about 500 drawings by Van Gogh and four of his sketchbooks – is that the drawings in Vincent van Gogh: The Lost Arles Sketchbook are imitations of Van Gogh's drawings.
The experts examined the style, technique, materials and iconography of the drawings in the sketchbook. Among their conclusions were that it contains distinctive topographical errors and that its maker based it on discoloured drawings by Van Gogh.
Characteristic style is not in evidence
The book suggests that the 65 drawings from the album date from the spring of 1888 to the spring of 1890, but oddly enough, the drawings do not in any way reflect Van Gogh's development as a draughtsman in that time. This is very puzzling, because he was in constant development as an artist in that period, during which he lived in Arles and Saint-Rémy.
In the sketchbook, there is no difference in style between drawings of subjects from Arles and those of subjects from Saint-Rémy. That does not support an attribution to Van Gogh. Furthermore, in contrast with Van Gogh's artistic achievements, the drawing style of the maker of the drawings in The Lost Arles Sketchbook is, in the opinion of our experts, monotonous, clumsy, and spiritless.
Van Gogh's characteristic refinement – which includes his ability to draw swiftly without sacrificing precision, his profound sense of chiaroscuro and the skilful way he integrated an enormous range of drawing techniques into a compelling whole – is not in evidence in these drawings.
Brownish ink not typical
Another telling point is that the drawings in The Lost Arles Sketchbook were executed in brown ink identified as sepia shellac. That type of ink has never been found in Van Gogh's drawings from the years 1888-1890. Van Gogh was then drawing in black (and occasionally purple) ink, but that ink has discoloured severely over time, becoming brown.
It is claimed in The Lost Arles Sketchbook that the ink of the drawings in the sketchbook has undergone the same discolouration; according to this reasoning, it must have originally been black. But that is impossible; the sepia shellac ink used for the drawings is inherently brown and was never black; it therefore has not discoloured. The paper is greenish-blue in colour and approximately 200 years old, and paper of that colour and age loses its original hue when exposed to light. Yet the paper is not discoloured either.
This is because the sketchbook is an album and has therefore not been exposed to light. But considering that the ink and paper have not discoloured, the maker of the drawings in the sketchbook must have been deliberately striving for brownish effects. In combination with the chosen iconography – scenes from Arles and Saint-Rémy – this shows that the maker was inspired by Van Gogh's drawings in their later, discoloured state and apparently did not know that their original colour was black.
Our experts also observed that a number of scenes in the album contain striking topographical errors. For example, the person who drew the men's wing of the asylum in Saint-Rémy depicted it, in two distinct drawings in the sketchbooks, as ending abruptly, as if it were a freestanding building. In fact, however, that wing is part of two connected buildings.
The drawing of the drawbridge in Arles known as the Langlois Bridge shows a bridgeman's house, but on the wrong side of the canal. The sketchbook contains numerous 'mistakes' of this kind. In The Lost Arles Sketchbook, it is claimed that the drawings were made from life, but it appears that the maker – and likewise, the author of the book – are not very familiar with the places depicted.
Topographical errors of this kind do not occur in Van Gogh's oeuvre. In this album, they arise from misinterpretations of the works after which the maker of the sketchbook modelled his or her imitations.
Sketchbook's provenance raises many questions
The provenance of the album also raises many questions. The owner said in 2007 that the sketchbook came from Mr and Mrs Ginoux in Arles – friends of Van Gogh's, who owned the Café de la Gare, where he was a regular and which he used as a hotel for a time in 1888. But there is no authentic historical evidence for this claim.
In fact, the Ginouxs did not own a single Van Gogh drawing in 1896, according to their own statements. But in The Lost Arles Sketchbook, it is claimed that the sketchbook was lost in their café, only to resurface in Van Gogh's former home in Arles, the well-known Yellow House, in 1944 – almost 50 years later.
According to this story, it then took more than 60 years before anyone realised that the sketchbook might be linked in some way to Van Gogh. We consider this course of events to be highly improbable.
Notebook seems unreliable
The Lost Arles Sketchbook includes a reproduction of a small notebook said to come from the Café de la Gare owned by the Ginouxs. This is a kind of ledger for the café, containing daily notes, one of which purportedly refers to the album of drawings. But because the drawings in the sketchbook are, in our opinion, not the work of Van Gogh, there are also doubts about the authenticity of this notebook.
We have been aware of its existence since 2012, when the owner of the sketchbook sent us photographs of four pages from the notebook, which had apparently just come to light. Vincent Van Gogh: The Lost Arles Sketchbook contains photographs of 26 pages from this notebook, which are said to be all that remains of it. We were very surprised, however, to see that two of the four pages sent to us in 2012 are missing from the book.
These two missing pages contain a note dated 19 June 1890 that includes a statement relating to Van Gogh. Our surprise was all the greater when we found this same statement regarding Van Gogh, in exactly the same words, in a note dated 10 June in Vincent Van Gogh: The Lost Arles Sketchbook.
We would very much like to know how this is possible. How many pages of this notebook have actually been preserved: 26, 28 or perhaps more? And how reliable is the notebook if exactly the same statement can be found on two different dates? This only strengthens our opinion that the only other passage regarding Van Gogh in this notebook, which refers to an album of drawings, cannot be authentic.
The passage in question is dated 20 May 1890 and states that Dr Rey – who had treated Van Gogh in the Arles hospital after he cut off his ear – had, on behalf of the artist, delivered an album of drawings for the Ginouxs. The suggestion is that Rey had visited Van Gogh in the asylum in Saint-Rémy, but there is no evidence that this physician remained in contact with Van Gogh at all after the latter's admission to the asylum.
Rey was probably not even living in Arles by that stage, given that his employment at the hospital there had ended in 1889 and he had to defend his doctoral thesis in Montpellier in June 1890. The correspondence between Van Gogh and the Ginouxs in May and June does not contain the slightest mention of a visit by Rey or of the delivery or receipt of a sketchbook: there is no advance mention of it nor any word of thanks, let alone a question about whether this remarkable gift had arrived in good condition.
In our view, the notebook is an unreliable source, and we believe it should be subjected to further examination.
Because our earlier opinion about the drawings is not included in Vincent van Gogh: The Lost Arles Sketchbook, the Van Gogh Museum is presenting the above information to the public.