Art historians have known for some time that there is more to Vincent van Gogh’s paintings than meets the eye.
Conservators at Tate Britain recently learned that underneath the dreary sky of a countryside scene painted by the Dutch artist hid the sterling pink hues of the evening sun. The discovery came as the museum prepares its collection of Van Gogh’s work for an eagerly-anticipated exhibition opening today, March 27, on the artist’s oeuvre, which will include rare loans of famous works including “Shoes” (1887), “Starry Night on the Rhône” (1888), and “Sunflowers” (1888).
When examining the muddied pigments of Van Gogh’s “Oise at Auvers” (1890), Tate researchers discovered evidence behind the watercolor’s mount and frame indicating a much more spectacular program of colors. A digital recreation based on the conservationists’s data replaced the coffee-stained pigments with a phantasmagoric orange-pink sheen.
“It is amazing, isn’t it,” the exhibition’s lead curator Carol Jacobi told the Guardian. “The thing that fascinates me is that he has got this particular effect you get at the end of the day when the sky is lighter than the landscape but it will light up in the water that’s in the landscape.”
Scholars say that Van Gogh painted “Oise at Auvers” only two months before his suicide at age 37, making it one of the artist’s last painted landscapes. In his letters from the time, the Dutch painter even remarked that he had “seen the whole sky colored pink and bright orange.”
Throughout his career, Van Gogh had a fondness for emphasizing the extreme colors found in nature — something he may have picked up from a John Everett Millais painting, or a vision impairment. The artist believed these had a humanizing effect on his terrains. He was particularly attracted to bold visions of yellow, which became a popular motif in his landscapes and still lifes. Unfortunately, Van Gogh lacked the funds necessary to acquire more durable versions of this expensive color, and he resorted to unstable pigments like geranium lake, which rapidly fade over time.