A research project undertaken by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam reveals that a number of the painter’s favourite paints have faded badly and changed the appearance of his works.
It has made them milder, more empty, less exquisite in their use of complementary colours than they were when he painted them.
The evidence is presented in Van Gogh at Work, a new exhibition at this popular and intellectually rigorous museum examining his practice as a painter, and looking at everything from the kinds of canvas he used – Van Gogh painted on everything from raw jute to, when he was short of cash, a dishcloth – to his intimate exchanges of ideas with friends such as Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec, reports the Guardian.
The friendship with Toulouse-Lautrec is a touching example of how a physical examination of art can lead us closer to the artist.
Van Gogh knew the great painter of Montmartre nightlife when they both lived in Paris, but evidence presented, including the fact that they bought their canvases at the same shop, shows them working closely as colleagues.
Another intimate revelation about Van Gogh’s working habits is that he regularly reused his canvases, painting over early works.
A flower painting in the show has a painting of wrestlers by Van Gogh concealed under it.
When he wanted to keep a painting, he sometimes painted on the back: two brown studies for his early work The Potato Eaters have later, vibrant self-portraits on their reverse.
Amid all this insight, the fact that Van Gogh’s colours are not always in their pristine glory is hard to assimilate. The evidence is relentless.
This exhibition is in effect a public report on a massive research project using the latest, non-invasive techniques to study the microscopic structure of art.
You can even look through an electronic microscope for yourself in an interactive that lets you see the grains of dirt in Van Gogh’s rich strokes of oily colour.
The fact that some of Van Gogh’s colours have changed over the years is simply a homage to his genius.