A Missing Van Gogh Discovered

The MFA and the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, have discovered a painting by Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) underneath the artist’s painting Ravine, owned by the MFA.

Meta Chavannes, the MFA’s Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Paintings Conservation, was examining x-rays of Ravine in response to a request from outside scholars for technical information on the Museum’s six paintings by van Gogh. During this examination, she discovered a second painting below the paint surface.

X-ray view of van Gogh's painting, Ravine, revealing drawing underneath paint
X-ray view of van Gogh's painting, Ravine, revealing drawing underneath paint

She met with Louis van Tilborgh, the Van Gogh research curator at the Van Gogh Museum, and they established that the underlying composition was most likely painted in June 1889, during the early period of Van Gogh’s stay at the asylum of Saint-Paul de Mausole near the Provençal town of Saint-Rémy, and was re-used as a support for Ravine a few months later, in October 1889. Van Tilborgh related the x-ray of Ravine to a drawing Van Gogh sent his brother in mid-1889 entitled Wild Vegetation.

Vincent van Gogh's drawing, Wild Vegetation
Wild Vegetation, the drawing that corresponds to the hidden painting

Scholars have suggested that this drawing, in the Van Gogh Museum, forms part of group of around a dozen drawn copies of paintings that the artist sent to his brother Theo in July 1889, but until now, no one knew of a painting upon which this particular drawing could have been based. As a result of this current research, the lost painting has been re-discovered.

Van Gogh did re-use canvas to save money in his earlier career, but in 1888 his brother Theo began to supply and pay for all of his painting materials. Thus, it is unlikely that he re-used the Wild Vegetation canvas to save money when he began to paint Ravine in October 1889. In fact, correspondence with his brother reveals that Theo was late in sending materials during this precise period, and that Vincent had completely run out of canvas by the time he painted Ravine.

Ravine—the masterpiece that now covers the earlier painting—is usually on view in the MFA’s Impressionist Gallery. More information about the paintings can be found in: Meta Chavannes and Louis van Tilborgh, "A missing Van Gogh unveiled," The Burlington Magazine, August 2007, No. 1253, Vol. CXLIX.