A book of ink drawings attributed to Vincent van Gogh debuts on shelves around the world tomorrow, making publicly available for the first time previously unknown, late sketches by the artist. But the celebratory release of Vincent van Gogh: The Lost Arles Sketchbook is now clouded in controversy as experts at Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum have announced that they reject the authenticity of the supposedly 200-year-old album. In a statement issued yesterday, following the book’s launch at a press conference in Paris, they claim the 65 included works are instead the product of someone who imitated the Post-Impressionist — someone they describe, bluntly, as “monotonous, clumsy, and spiritless.”
The publication, which includes portraits of van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, as well as locations in Arles and Saint-Rémy we’ve come to associate with the Dutch painter, emerges from the research of two internationally acclaimed van Gogh scholars: Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov, a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto who has curated a number of major exhibitions on van Gogh including one that traveled to the Amsterdam museum in 1981; and Ronald Pickvance, who has also curated shows on the artist in addition to authoring a number of books on him. Packed with compelling, heavily footnoted text, supplementary images of maps, paintings, and photographs of related artifacts, the 280-page book stitches together a comprehensive history of the so-called “lost sketchbooks,” which would fill the absence of any such albums made in those years leading up to van Gogh’s tragic death.
Both Welsh-Ovcharov and Pickvance still stand firmly by this research. As the latter told the New York Times, “These are absolutely O.K., from one to 65. End of song, end of story.” Welse-Ovcharov had spent three years investigating the sketchbook’s history, and the book relays its complex journey as it passed through a number of hands.
According to the authors, van Gogh had given the collection of drawings to Joseph and Marie Ginoux, the owners of a cafe in Arles; his physician Felix Rey had made the delivery on the artist’s behalf. Evidence arrives from an entry in a datebook belonging to the cafe that recounts van Gogh leaving the Ginouxs “a large book of drawings.” Eventually the drawings apparently went to the couple’s niece and were later found in the family home in 1944 by a neighbor, who, 20 years later, gifted the album to her daughter. The woman is still its current owner, but had apparently not known the value of what she owned until someone recommended she show them to an expert. That expert, art historian Franck Baille, shared them with Welse-Ovcharov in 2013.
The museum has repeatedly refuted the authenticity of the drawings since 2008, each time at the request of various owners of the album. Its experts have examined both high-quality photographs of 56 of the works as well as a number of the original drawings. The entire collection purportedly dates between the spring of 1888 — right when van Gogh had moved from Paris to Arles — and the spring of 1890 — after he left the psychiatric clinic in Saint-Rémy, where he had admitted himself following his famous ear incident. Yet the style, technique, material, and iconography of the sketches, according to the experts, refute any possibility they arrive from the hands of the troubled artist.
“Van Gogh’s characteristic refinement — which includes his ability to draw swiftly without sacrificing precision, his profound sense of chiaroscuro and the skillful way he integrated an enormous range of drawing techniques into a compelling whole — is not in evidence in these drawings,” the museum’s statement reads. It adds that while van Gogh was constantly developing his style during these years, the drawings do not reflect any stylistic shifts.
Their lines, too, are rendered in a brown ink known as sepia shellac, which has never before appeared in other works. Van Gogh typically chose to draw in black ink, which did fade to brown if exposed to light over many years. The museum argues that the drawings in the album did not undergo such a process overtime since the 200-year-old papers on which they appear reveal no sign of discoloration themselves.
What’s more, a number of the 65 illustrations supposedly show architectural errors that suggest their maker’s unfamiliarity with these locations. According to the museum’s statement, such discrepancies emerge in a sketch of the men’s wing of the Saint-Rémy asylum and in another of a drawbridge in Arles.
“Topographical errors of this kind do not occur in van Gogh’s oeuvre,” the museum said. “In this album, they arise from misinterpretations of the works after which the maker of the sketchbook modelled his or her imitations.”
The Dutch institution also rejects the provenance, stating that correspondence between the Ginouxs and van Gogh in 1890 give no mention of the drawings. It’s unlikely Rey was even in Arles at the time, museum experts argue, since he had to be in Montpellier in June to defend his doctoral thesis. As for the datebook, they describe it as an unreliable source, having seen photographs of four of its pages in 2012. Mysteriously, they add, two of those four images are not included in The Lost Arles Sketchbook, although the authors claim that they have included all remaining photographic evidence of it.
None of the museum’s arguments appear in the new book, which is why, the institution explained, it chose to publicly share the information on its website. The publishers involved in distributing the forthcoming book include Les Éditions du Seuil in France, Abrams in the United States, Knesebeck in Germany, and Lannoo in Amsterdam; releases of editions in several other languages are also in the works.
This latest controversy follows a number of van Gogh-centric findings also made public this year that concern everything from his ear wound to the recipient of the mutilated organ to the artist’s yellow bed. If we may be sure of just one thing, it’s that the painter is quite the rabble-rouser, even from his grave.