Two of Van Gogh’s paintings have been restored in preparation for the Van Gogh & Japan exhibition: 'Peach Tree in Blossom' and 'Sprig of Flowering Almond in a Glass'. In the spring of 2018 they can be admired in their original beauty in the museum.
It was decided in the run-up to the Van Gogh & Japan exhibition to restore two paintings by Van Gogh: a longlasting wish of curators and restorers alike. Peach Tree in Blossom and Sprig of Flowering Almond in a Glass are excellent examples of the way Van Gogh drew inspiration from Japanese printmaking immediately after his arrival in Arles in the spring of 1888.
In the past, both paintings have been lined and given a glossy varnish layer. The latter in particular would not have been the artist’s own preference, as he specifically sought to achieve a matt surface. The decision was taken to remove the now yellowed, glossy varnish layers to bring the paintings closer to Van Gogh’s original intention.
Peach Tree in Blossom
When Van Gogh painted this Peach Tree in Blossom, he not only envisaged clear colour contrasts, such as yellow/violet, but also a matt paint surface and cooler tones than we see today. He created the violet in the foreground by mixing blue and red paint. Because the light-sensitive red lake pigments that the artist used have faded over the years, only the blue paint is now visible and the intended colour contrast has been lost.
A documented, earlier restoration explains why the little painting had a glossy surface and warm, yellowish tones prior to its recent treatment, contrary to Van Gogh’s intentions. The restorer Jan Cornelis Traas ‘lined, cleaned and varnished’ the work and placed it on a new stretcher in 1928, as itemized in his invoice at the time. The current, extremely yellowed varnish layer is more than likely the one that Traas applied. Traces of blank paper have also been found on the surface, left over from the facing that was applied with starch to the front of the work to protect the paint layer when the painting was lined. These brown fibres and white haze, together with the yellowed varnish layer, interfered strongly with the work’s appearance. Removal of the varnish layer and facing residues by the restorer has resulted in an immense difference in colour. In keeping with the artist’s thinking, the painting will not be revarnished and now displays a beautiful surface.
Sprig of Flowering Almond in a Glass
Unlike Peach Tree in Blossom, we do not know for certain when or by whom this little painting was lined or varnished. We can surmise from a letter to Vincent Willem van Gogh (the artist’s nephew) that it was restored at the beginning of 1928. ‘That little thing: “blossom sprig in glass” has been brightened up extraordinarily – it sparkles now in very fine colours – wonderful!’ Unfortunately, there is no sign today, almost ninety years later, of any such ‘sparkle’ or ‘fine colours’. The painting was probably cleaned, lined and given a layer of glossy varnish at that point, which re-saturated the colours. The varnish that was applied has since yellowed with age, as a result of which the subtle colour differences and fine brushwork are no longer seen to their best advantage. Van Gogh’s painting technique had to be taken into account when treating the work: his light impasto, drawing-like lines in the glass and the blossoms, and the open brushstrokes in the foreground, which leave the underlying ground layer visible. To avoid damaging the fragile paint layers, the restorer can only remove the varnish with microtools, working under a microscope – a process that requires considerable time.
Van Gogh & Japan
The restored Peach Tree in Blossom is on display in Japan right now, where it is included in the exhibition Van Gogh & Japan being held at three venues in Sapporo, Tokyo and Kyoto. Sprig of Flowering Almond in a Glass is undergoing further treatment in the Van Gogh Museum’s conservation studio. Both paintings can be seen in all their revived beauty at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam when Van Gogh & Japan opens there on 23 March 2018.