Most people have dreamt of finding a valuable work of art in a junk shop or an attic, but the fantasies of art historians are much more modest. For Ronald Pickvance, who organised two legendary Van Gogh exhibitions for New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1984 and 1986, it was a career highlight to have spotted a previously unidentified drawing by the artist in a museum in the Belgian city of Tournai.
“This is my one and only discovery in almost six decades of pursuing Van Gogh’s life and work,” writes Pickvance in the preface to Vincent Van Gogh: The Lost Arles Sketchbook. “And now I introduce the most revolutionary discovery in the entire history of Van Gogh’s oeuvre. Not one drawing; not ten, not fifty, but sixty-five drawings.”
The lucky art historian who got to authenticate and write about this “revolutionary” discovery was Pickvance’s friend, Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov, from the University of Toronto, herself the curator of two important Van Gogh exhibitions. Welsh-Ovcharov just happened to be in the right place at the right time when a sketchbook that had remained unknown for 123 years fell into the hands of Franck Baille, an auctioneer and valuer in Aix-en-Provence. Casting around for a reputable Van Gogh expert to confirm his hunch, Baille contacted Welsh-Ovcharov, who for many years has rented a house, every August, in the south of France.
It would be hard to imagine a greater art historical orgasm. The expert’s innate scepticism screams: “Oh no, this can’t be true!” but the trained eye keeps absorbing significant details, ticking off identifying characteristics, finding compelling evidence of Van Gogh’s hand on one sheet after another. It looks right, it feels right. Now comes the painstaking research to legitimate a discovery that will be put under the microscope – or should that be the blowtorch? – by an army of one’s peers.
On the very day the book appeared, the Van Gogh Museum issued a detailed statement disputing the authenticity of the works. So battle-lines have already been drawn up, with Welsh-Ovcharov and Pickvance knowing their reputations are at stake.
For Welsh-Ovcharov the story began three years ago, in the summer of 2013. This week the results of her labours may be sampled in a book that is set to be the art publishing sensation of the year, and arguably one of the greatest of all time – or alternatively, the hoax of the century.
“It was my ‘Oh my God’ moment,” she recalls. “It was just fate. Like finding Tutkankamen’s sister’s tomb, or some great treasure under the sea.”
“I’ve been around Van Gogh a long time, and you’re immediately suspicious, of course, that this could happen in today’s world. But the study progressed to the point where both Ronald and I were convinced it was the actual sketchbook that Van Gogh had used in Arles and Saint-Remy, from May 1888 to May 1890. It corroborates something that Ronald had said in his studies of this period, when he argued there must have been a sketchbook.”
When I suggested that a perceived gap in an artist’s oeuvre is an invitation to forgery, Welsh-Ovcharov agreed, but explained her reasoning. “When I started working on the drawings, and got to know every corner of them, I realised this isn’t something that just anyone could do. It had to be Van Gogh. As you follow the commentaries you see how closely interrelated these drawings are with the artist’s known work. It would have taken a truly magnificent mind to have put together 65 drawings from such varied perspectives, and to include other views that reveal insights into how the artist approached his paintings. To follow Van Gogh’s thinking so closely you’d have to be from outer space.”
Along with the sketchbook there was a small notebook, or carnet, that recorded daily transactions at the Café de la Gare in Arles, where Van Gogh stayed before he moved into the Yellow House. Inside this little journal was a written account of the way the sketchbook was brought to the Ginoux family by Dr. Felix Rey, who had come from visiting Van Gogh at the aslyum in Saint-Remy.
“It’s truly an incredible story,” says Welsh-Ovcharov, “but it’s like a jigsaw puzzle in which every part fits. And both Ronald and I are very astute scholars who know how to recognise a red flag.”
To those who have followed Van Gogh’s story, figures such as Marie and Joseph Ginoux, and Dr. Rey, will be familiar figures. The Ginoux owned the Café de la Gare, where Vincent spent his days and nights, and were also his landlords at the Yellow House. Dr. Rey treated the artist after he had mutilated his own ear on December 23 1888, and the two became friends. Van Gogh advised the doctor to become a collector of art, but not to take up the brush himself.
Madame Ginoux was a particular favourite of Van Gogh, who depicted her as L’Arlesienne in a famous series of paintings. He would also paint portraits of Joseph Ginoux and Dr. Rey, as well as other characters who frequented the Café de la Gare, such as Roulin the postman.
As Welsh-Ovcharov tells the story, the sketchbook was an old-style account book, called a brouillard, with a leather cover and pages of blank, handmade paper. This was the time when books with lined paper were being introduced, and it seems Van Gogh seized on the old book which was gifted to him by the Ginoux.
He began by drawing a wellknown bridge in Arles, and took the book with him when he visited locations in the countryside and at the seashore. It would be in his possession when he checked into Saint-Remy after his mental breakdown.
When Dr. Rey visited, at the time Vincent was preparing to move to Auvers, he was asked to return the sketchbook to the Ginoux, presumably as a gift. But when the doctor visited the café, both Marie and Joseph were ill, and an unknown assistant was minding the business. The book was received from Dr. Rey, recorded in the little carnet, and probably put into a cupboard with other old ledgers. It would remain in the possession of the Ginoux, who were apparently never aware of its existence.
Years later, after her husband’s death, Marie Ginoux rented out the café and moved into a nearby house with her niece, Marguerite Crevoulin, also soon to be widowed. All the records of the café were retained and moved to another location behind the Yellow House, which would be rented by one Gaspard Basso, who would run a successful café on the premises for 26 years.
The book only surfaced in 1944 when it was found by the sister-in-law of Basso’s son, after the Yellow House had been virtually destroyed by Allied bombing in the war. This woman was delighted by “the pretty drawings”, and would later give the book to her daughter as a twentieth birthday present. Today it remains in the daughter’s possession, although she no longer lives in Arles. It only came to Franck Baille’s attention through hearsay, from someone who knew the owner and had seen the book.
The drawings are alleged to have survived through a strange mixture of accident, neglect and personal care. Welsh-Ovcharov notes, with gratitude, that people in Provence are notorious for never throwing anything away. Nevertheless, it seems amazing that no-one previously attributed the work to the most famous painter to have ever lived in Arles.
It may simply be a lesson in how little most people know about art, even the art of a figure such as Van Gogh, one of the most admired and mythologised of modern painters. The artist made his own drawing pens from reeds, and to Welsh-Ovcharov the style and touch in these works could not be more distinctive – but only if one is already familiar with the territory. Her detractors at the Van Gogh Museum take the opposite point-of-view, arguing that the style of the drawings is not characteristic of the artist at that time.
The sketchbook contains landscapes, seascapes, small studies obviously intended for use with larger paintings, and a number of portraits. There is even a self-portrait in that famous battered straw hat, although the face bears little resemblance to the Van Gogh we know from the best known self-portraits in oils. The stand-out work is probably no. 47, which shows a field of sunflowers with poplars and mountains in the distance, beneath a radiant sun transformed into a super-nova. Would anyone dare to make up such an anthology of the artist’s most famous motifs? Either way it’s an astonishing piece, more Van Gogh than Van Gogh.
Welsh-Ovcharov says she would have been thrilled to add even one new fact to the story of Vincent’s life as recounted in the letters and biographies. In fact, her research has uncovered a good deal of new material about the history of the Yellow House. She has established many tiny details about the places the artist worked in Provence, and the methods he employed. Until now we didn’t even know that Dr. Rey had visited Van Gogh in Saint-Remy. (A claim disputed by the Van Gogh Museum). The fact that at least 80% of the drawings can be linked to known paintings would be enough to keep scholars busy for years to come.
As to what will happen to this multi-million dollar find, should it prove to be authentic, Welsh-Ovcharov has no idea. “I’m pleased the drawings are now available for the world to see, and I think they need to be exhibited. After that, I can only hope they remain in some form in the public domain. When the book comes out my role as an art historian has ended, but I’m blessed and thrilled to have been able to participate in such a great detective story.”
Vincent Van Gogh: The Lost Arles Sketchbook is available now.