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There’s a Dead Grasshopper in This van Gogh Painting

A conservator discovers a long-hidden insect buried in the artist’s signature whorls of paint.

Vincent van Gogh, “Olive Trees” (1889) (all images courtesy The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art)

There’s a grasshopper in the van Gogh. The artist didn’t intend to embed the critter in his canvas when he was painting olive groves in the south of France, but the insect is there, buried in a swirl of paint. For over a century, it went unnoticed in the finished work, “Olive Trees” (1889), now owned by the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, but a recent study by the museum’s curators, conservators, and outside scientists has revealed its old, brown carcass. It’s a small but telling trace of van Gogh’s practice of painting outdoors, where conditions were often windy enough to send flies, dust, sand — and, apparently, crickets — blowing around the artist and his canvas.

Image taken through a microscope of the grasshopper embedded in the paint of “Olive Trees”

The grasshopper came to light while Paintings Conservator Mary Schafer was examining the work under magnification, as part of the museum’s ongoing research for a catalogue of its collection of French paintings. Buried in the lower foreground of the landscape, it escaped notice for so long because the thickness of the paint makes it practically unobservable to the naked eye, as museum spokesperson Kathleen Leighton told Hyperallergic. Traces of the grasshopper are also small: the body is incomplete, with the bug’s thorax and abdomen missing.

It’s unlikely that the strong-legged grasshopper got stuck in the paint, failed to jump out of a sticky dollop, and experienced a slow, horrible death. Invited by the museum to take a closer look at the insect, paleo-entomologist Dr. Michael S. Engel noticed that there was no sign of movement in the paint surrounding its body, indicating that no struggle took place.

“The entomologist we consulted determined that the grasshopper was dead when it became stuck in the thick paint, so it’s likely it was blowing in the wind when it became stuck,” Leighton said.

Schafer had been curious as to whether the grasshopper could be used to identify the season during which van Gogh executed the painting, but no more precise dating, unfortunately, could be made from her surprise finding. The grasshopper was left in its inadvertent burial site, and now rests in peace in the museum’s Bloch Galleries, where “Olive Trees” is on display.

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