The Dutch artist Van Gogh struggled as a painter. His frustration often caused to destroy certain of his works. He became renowned as a mad genius… as well known for cutting off his ear…as for his revolutionary experiments with form and color. If an artist like van Gogh had ever had any inkling about what science can now reveal it might explain why he destroyed works he wanted no-one to ever see.
Van Gogh was a very productive painter. He painted well over 800 paintings. Interestingly there is actually much more of his work that we don’t know of and its estimated that 10, 20% of existing paintings have another painting hidden a few micrometers, in many cases, just below the surface.
Van Gogh was a modern artist who rejected the classical techniques of the Salon Painters. His Academic contemporaries of the 19th century. He was overwhelmed by a passion to craft new forms in his images.
Van Gogh’s vibrant painting titled “Patch of Grass” was studied intensely for years in the conservation studio of the Kroller Muller museum in Holland. Thanks to the damages of time, the color of a human cheek is visible in one of the larger cracks of the painting’s surface. Scientists and conservators began to collaborate, knowing from xrays that there was a mysterious head of a woman underneath the surface layer of the field of flowers.
The Kroller Muller museum allowed the scientists to take a small chip of paint from the surface of the painting. They were then able to use that small chip of paint to prepare paint cross sections. Almost like a geologist that looks at the different layers of the earth – they could look at the different layers of that painting and identify the main elemental components of all the different layers. The deepest section of the chip showed pigments containing the vermillion and Naples yellow that van Gogh frequently combined to create flesh tones in his early works.
“We knew that we had to basically chart those two elements in order to get a better view of the hidden face. The deepest section of the chip showed pigments containing the vermillion and Naples yellow that van Gogh frequently combined to create flesh tones in his early works.” – Joris Dik
To map the pattern of these paint elements, van Gogh’s “Patch of Grass” was taken to an atomic particle accelerator in Hamburg known as the Doris III Synchrotron. For over a week a thin beam scanned the painting to detect the fluorescenses given off by each chemical in the layers of pigments.
With the data collected from the experiment a virtual three dimensional model was created that allowed the scientists to peel off, digitally, all of the pigment layers to get to the lead white priming layer which van Gogh had used to eliminate the head of a peasant woman.
Why would such a beautiful portrait have been eliminated? The theory behind the mystery goes back to the period when Van Gogh painted many of his neighbours living in squalor in the village of Noonan in the south of Holland. Once van Gogh moved from Holland to Paris to live with his brother, Theo, his work was transformed by the innovations of Impressionist painters such as Monet, Pissaro and Gauguin. He immediately aspired to use their effects of light to create his own reality based solely on form and color.
Van Gogh soon considered his earlier works to be of little value and painted over them in order to reuse the canvasses. Van Gogh’s letters have lead historians to conclude that this missing portrait was part of the series linked to “The Potato Eaters.”
The pursuit of light consumed van Goghand he never again painted the working people of Noonan living in their down-trodden state.
Painting is a searching process. The artist starts with a sort of a first sketch of what he has in his mind. But then as he paints he may change his ideas.
Looking through the paint layers, then, basically means standing behind the artist and looking over his shoulder and seeing him make choices and understanding those choices in a larger context. Van Gogh painted his Dutch neighbors with compassion, emphasizing their strong but noble features and the sombre reality of working in the fields.
The series of small peasant portraits that he eliminated became the basis of his first major masterpiece: “The Potato Eaters”.