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Dating the raindrops: Martin Bailey reviews the final volumes in the catalogues of the two most important collections of Van Gogh's drawings.

Vincent van Gogh Drawings Vol. IV: Arles, Saint-Remy & Auvers-sur-Oise

Marije Vellekoop and Roelie Zwicker, with Monique Hageman

Van Gogh Museum/Zwolle, 99 [euro]

ISBN 978904008386

Lund Humphries, 100 [pounds sterling]

ISBN 9780853317418

Drawings and Prints by Vincent van Gogh in the Collection of the Kroller-Muller Museum

Teio Meendendorp

Kroller-Muller Museum, 59 [euro]

ISBN 9789078964056

By coincidence, the cataloguing of the two most important collections of Van Gogh drawings has been completed at virtually the same moment. Both groups of works are in the Netherlands: 499 at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and 161 at the Kro11er-Muller Museum, set in the midst of a national park near Otterlo. Around 350 drawings are scattered in other collections, which means that two-thirds of the oeuvre is covered in the latest publications (these figures exclude sketchbooks and small sketches enclosed with letters).

So how did so many drawings end up at the two museums? Since Van Gogh failed dismally to sell his work, much of it went to his brother Theo, whose son V.W. van Gogh set up the Amsterdam museum in 1973. At the Kroller-Muller Museum (which opened in 1938) virtually all the drawings had been acquired by Helene Kroller-Muller, with 112 being bought as a single lot in 1928, from Dordrecht collector Hidde Nijland. It has been known that a mysterious American also tried to acquire the Nijland drawings, but failed. The new Kroller-Muller catalogue now identifies him as Harvard professor Paul Sachs, then associate director of the Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Nijland collected only Van Gogh's early Dutch works, and this is very much reflected in the Kroller-Muller collection, which has only seven of the artist's French drawings.

The Van Gogh Museum's drawings catalogue is a multi-volume set, with the first three volumes appearing between 1996 and 2001. The final volume has now appeared, covering the artist's last years in Arles, Saint-Remy and Auvers-sur-Oise in 1888-90, when his work was at its height (other than for short periods when he suffered from mental problems). Nearly 600 pages long, it catalogues 176 works (confusingly, the English version published in Amsterdam is bound in two parts, whereas the Lund Humphries edition, published in London, is in one).

When the Van Gogh Museum set out in the early 1990s to catalogue its entire collection, the intention had been to complete the work by the year 2000, but it has taken considerably longer, mainly because of the meticulous approach. The three writers (Sjraar van Heugten, Marije Vellekoop and Roelie Zwikker) have been ably assisted by the museum's archivists and conservators, producing a near-definitive account of the drawings.

The Amsterdam museum's drawings are relatively well known to scholars, so few surprises emerge in the final catalogue, although the level of detail in the entries is impressive. To take just one example, in Fields with Farmhouses, drawn in Aries, the presence of small spatter marks was noted, suggesting that the artist was interrupted by rain; the drawing is dated to mid-April 1888, and meteorological records reveal that rain fell on five days in this period. The Kroller-Muller drawings catalogue is also very detailed, but it is by a single author (Teio Meedendorp), who did not have quite the same resources as his colleagues in Amsterdam. His approach is more personal and slightly more speculative than the objective, somewhat institutional style of the Van Gogh Museum team.


Among new insights on individual Kroller-Muller works is Meedendorp's suggestion that Nursing Mother with Child depicts the features of Kee Vos, Vincent's cousin, who rejected his amorous advances in 1881. He also argues that Woman on her Deathbed, drawn in The Hague in 1883, was modelled by Sien Hoornik, the former prostitute and lover of Van Gogh. If this is correct, then it is bizarre that the artist dressed his girlfriend in a shroud and got her to pose as a corpse.

One drawing was jointly acquired by the Van Gogh Museum and the Kroller-Muller Museum in 2005, and this offers an unusual opportunity to compare entries in the two catalogues. The work is Van Gogh's copy of Holbein's portrait The Daughter of Jacob Meyer, based on an image in Charles Bargue's Cours de dessin. The text in the Van Gogh Museum catalogue is 750 words; the Kroller-Muller publication gives it 600 words. Most of the points made by the two cataloguers are similar, but this is probably because in making a joint purchase they presumably researched the work, and shared the results. However, the tone of the Van Gogh Museum entry is more detailed and authoritative.

Both catalogues make important changes to the dating of certain works. One of the more drastic shifts is the Van Gogh Museum's Study of a Hand, until recently believed to have been drawn in Saint-Remy in 1889-90, but it is now dated to Etten in 1881. At the Kroller-Muller, Mangle with Three Figures is changed from Nuenen (1883-5) to The Hague (1881-3), with Woodcutters being moved from The Hague to Nuenen.

The two catalogues reveal the range of Van Gogh's graphic work, and the many motives behind it. He started to sketch a few years before he took up oil painting in late 1881, regarding drawing as a way of developing his artistic skills. Sometimes Van Gogh drew because he could not afford canvas and paint. Sketches were also done as preparatory works for paintings, and on other occasions drawings were made as copies after paintings, to show friends and family what he was working on.

The catalogue images also show the extent to which Van Gogh's drawings have deteriorated over the past 120 years. The artist was always short of money, and often materials, and he therefore sometimes used poor-quality paper and unsuitable ink. He also moved fairly frequently, sending drawings to his brother Theo, and this must have led to occasional damage. During his lifetime, and immediately afterwards, the drawings had virtually no financial value, and were often treated casually. Many were exposed to light, causing paper to darken and ink to fade. In a few cases (such as landscapes done around Montmajour, near Aries) the works have ended up as virtual ghosts.

Conservators now wisely insist that Van Gogh's drawings should only occasionally be exposed to light. Major exhibitions of drawings are therefore unusual (the one held at the Metropolitan Museum and the Van Gogh Museum in 2005 was a rare event), but two shows were mounted last year to coincide with the latest publications: the Van Gogh Museum exhibited 50 drawings from all periods, in a display focusing on 'new insights' from the cataloguing project and the Kroller-Muller Museum displayed their 100 finest drawings.

And finally, a word on the cataloguing of Van Gogh's paintings. The KrollerMuller published their paintings in a single volume, in 2003. The Van Gogh Museum's first volume on paintings, on the Dutch years, was published in 1999, and the Paris volume is out in 2008. This will leave the Arles/Saint-Remy/Auvers-sur-Oise paintings, to be tackled some years hence.

There is still a need for a fully revised catalogue raisonne, particularly for works not in the two major museums. The standard Bart de la Faille catalogue (published 1928, updated 1939 and 1970), is very dated; the catalogue by Jan Hulsker (1980, updated 1996) is a useful chronological account, but lacks detail. The new publications from the two major museums will provide a good starting point for a definitive catalogue of Van Gogh's entire oeuvre.

Martin Bailey curated Wan Gogh and Britain: Pioneer Collectors' at the National Gallery of Scotland (2006).
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Title Annotation:Vincent van Gogh Drawings, vol. 4: Arles, Saint-Remy and Auvers-sur-Oise; Drawings and Prints by Vincent Van Gogh in the Collection of the Kroller-Muller Museum
Author:Bailey, Martin
Article Type:Book review
Date:Feb 1, 2008
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