Vincent van Gogh … A magnificent discovery…

On September 17, 2017 (last year) I wrote here on this website how Englishman Adrian Spong has in his possession two artworks he believes are by Vincent van Gogh. Having studied Mr Spong’s research, I believe he has. You can read what I wrote here – https://www.marilynztomlins.com/articles/vincent-van-gogh-death-of-the-virgin-is-this-painting-a-van-gogh/ In fact, I recommend that you do read […]

The Death of the Virgin in Mr Spong’s Possession (cc Adrian Spong)

On September 17, 2017 (last year) I wrote here on this website how Englishman Adrian Spong has in his possession two artworks he believes are by Vincent van Gogh.

Having studied Mr Spong’s research, I believe he has.

You can read what I wrote here –

https://www.marilynztomlins.com/articles/vincent-van-gogh-death-of-the-virgin-is-this-painting-a-van-gogh/

In fact, I recommend that you do read it before you read on now.

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Not someone who indulges in unsubstantiated claims, Mr Spong has published his research. This is research which is available to the public but I will give details about how you can obtain this research at the end of this report.

Mr Spong published his initial research in book form in September 2017.

Cover First book (cc Adrian Spong)

Next, he published his follow-up research, also in book form in September 2018.

Cover 2nd book (cc Adrian Spong)

  In the September 2017 publication of 103 pages, as you would have read on the above link (I do hope you had indeed read my first post given on the above link) he wrote of how he had bought a package of five framed paintings at an auctioneer for £200 ($250 – €220).

Only interested in one of the framed paintings – a 19th century landscape watercolour – he put the other four paintings in his garage.

One of the four he thought was “weird”. It was within a white-painted wooden frame.

 At home, he concentrated only on the watercolour, having left the other four paintings, which included the ‘weird’ one in the white-painted wooden frame, still lying on a table in his garage.

A few days later he looked at the ‘weird’ painting again.

He opened the frame.

The frame measured 24.4×30.7 inches (62×78 cm).

His keen eye told him that the framing had been done, not by a professional like an art dealer, but an amateur, as the frame had been padded out with a piece of cardboard from a box which had contained the condiment ‘Daddies Sauce’. This British condiment – Daddies ‘brown’ sauce – was first manufactured in the United Kingdom in 1904, and in 1930 the company had added ketchup to its range. There was a time when no household in the United Kingdom was without this condiment on the table.  So it was also during WW2.

Also, within the frame, and behind the ‘weird’ painting executed with thinned oil on thin paper measuring 15.5×20.27 inches (39.5×51.5 cm) Mr Spong found a double spread of the November 5, 1945 issue of the weekly Radio Times, the British television and radio programme listings magazine.  The magazine was first published in 1923, and during WW2 because of paper shortages, the magazine had been reduced to just twenty pages printed in a tiny font on thin paper.  Despite that the war had ended, that was still the case for the November 5, 1945 issue. The magazine was not distributed beyond Britain’s borders.

 The backboard of this frame was completely sealed with this double spread: Mr Spong broke the seal.

Something else had been inserted into the frame behind the ‘weird’ painting.

It was a pencil sketch on paper measuring 16.14×21.65 inches (41×55 cm).

The sketch was of a reclining headless nude. 

Semi-Reclining Nude in Mr Spong’s possession (cc Adrian Spong)

And the ‘weird’ painting?

This was a painting of a bearded woman in a blue canopied bed and she was surrounded by seven bearded males with another four ‘stick’ male figures in the background.  In other words, there were altogether eleven male figures. 

Death of the Virgin in Mr Spong’s possession (cc Adrian Spong)

Mr Spong named the sketch of the nude, Semi-Reclining Nude, and he named the ‘weird’ painting, The Death of the Virgin.

The art connoisseur in him had immediately thought that he had two artworks executed by a master artist.

This master artist was Vincent van Gogh.

What did he see that convinced him of this?

In 1887, Vincent van Gogh – I will call him Vincent from now on as this was how he had signed those artworks of his which he did sign – when he was living in Paris’s Montmartre district with his brother Theo, had executed a painting of a reclining female nude. The painting, an oil-on-canvas measuring 23.6×29 inches (59.9×73.7) is today on exhibit in the Kröller-Müller Museum in the village of Otterlo, some 49.7 miles (80 kms) from Amsterdam.

Vincent van Gogh’s Reclining Nude 1887

 However, Vincent had first done a pencil-on-paper study of a reclining female nude, the study measuring 9.4×12.4 inches (24×31.6 cm) which can be viewed today in Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum.

Vincent’s study or his Reclining Nude 1887 (cc Adrian Spong)

There is an unmistakable similarity between Vincent’s ‘V hatching’ or ‘Sharks Teeth’ on the reclining female nude of the Amsterdam Van Gogh Museum and the pencil sketch in Mr Spong’s possession.  

Also, there is a ‘practice joint’ (doodle) in the top-right corner – something typical of how Vincent went about his work – on the Semi-Reclining Nude in Mr Spong’s possession and the ‘practice joint’ in the top-right corner of the 1887 Seated Female Nude also today on exhibit in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

Vincent’s Seated Female Nude 1887 showing practice joint ( cc Adrian Spong)

Semi-reclining nude in Mr Spong;s possession showing the practice joints (cc Adrian Spong)

 

As for the ‘weird’ one – The Death of the Virgin – done with thinned oil on thin paper, Mr Spong found no fewer than 40 Vincent van Gogh similarities in this painting.

I will mention only six of the similarities.  (Mr Spong details each in his second book.

One. The painting was executed without ground.  In other words, Vincent painted straight onto paper without a bottom coat of paint. Not using a ground applied to all his oil on paper works executed while he was a patient in the Saint-Paul de Mausole Asylum in the French town of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.  Three examples of such work are his Vestibule, his Corridor in the Asylum and his The Diggers, all three painted in 1889 at the asylum. (He had been a patient of the asylum for 374 days, having arrived on May 8, 1889, having admitted himself, and then having discharged himself on May 16, 1890.)

Two. Brush-strokes. As art experts and indeed some of them from Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum pointed out, Vincent’s brush-strokes were “strongly rhythmic and tightly arranged”, a characteristic which was unique to Vincent van Gogh. Indeed, so are the brush-strokes on The Death of the Virgin in Mr Spong’s possession.

Brush strokes on The Death of the Virgin in Mr Spong’s possession (cc Adrian Spong)

 

Brush strokes on Vincent’s ‘The Reaper'(ccAdrian Spong)

Three. A lack of facility with hands and faces, as Mr Spong puts it, but which to the layman means that Vincent had a problem drawing hands and faces.  Proof of this is Vincent’s oil on paper Two Women Crossing the Fields of 1890 and his Spectators in the Arena at Arles of 1888. 

Vincent’s Two Women Crossing the Field (cc Adrain Spong)

 

Muddy faces and grotesque hands on Mr Spong’s The Death of the Virgin(cc Adrian Spong)

 

Muddy faces on Vincent’s Spectators in the Arena at Arles (cc Adrian Spong)

Four. The use of polka dots. This may seem of little importance, even of no importance, but as Mr Spong points out in his second book, if one looks carefully at how Vincent had used the polka dot in his work, you will see that the dots have a delta-wing look. Mr Spong explains in this second book: “This is because Vincent formed these dots with two short curved parallel brush-strokes.When the brush leaves the surface it produces a ‘tail’. The two tails form an indent.” An example for comparison of Vincent’s polka dots on The Death of the Virgin can be made with the polka dots of his 1888 Two Women Crossing the Fields already mentioned in ‘3’ above.

Polka dots on The Death of the Virgin in Mr Spong’s possession (cc Adrian Spong)

 

Polka dots on Vincent’s wo Women crossing the Fields (cc Adrian Spong)

Five.  Stick figures. Mr Spong writes in his second book that Vincent was often casual in how he sketched in background figures and objects.  “He sketched these in last, just in outline, not worrying that the background remained visible.”  The figures or objects thus look transparent: i.o.w. the background remains visible.  Such transparent stick figures can be seen on The Death of the Virgin and on Vincent’s 1889 Trees and Bushes in the Garden of the Asylum.

Stick figures on The Death of the Virgin in Mr Spong’s possession (cc Adrian Spong)

 

Stick figure on Vincent’s Trees and Bushes in the Garden of the Asylum (cc Adrian Spong)

Six. The use of books. Vincent, a great reader, used to feature books in his paintings, the books heightened with white pigment, and the curve of an open book accentuated with brown pigment. We see books in his 1887 Piles of French Novels, and in his Blossoming Almond Branch in a Glass with a Book of 1888, and in his L’Arlesienne of 1889. And we see books in The Death of the Virgin in Mr Spong’s possession. Furthermore, Vincent and Theo, both in poor health, and having consulted homeopaths, Vincent would identity a book on a painting as a medical journal.  An example of this is his 1889 Still-Life with Drawing Board and Onions where the book is the ‘Manual Annuaire de la Santé’. On The Death of the Virgin, the book in bottom-right is the ‘Materia Medica’.

Medical book on Vincent’s Still-Life with Drawing Board and Onions (cc Adrian Spong)

Two books, one medical on The Death of the Virgin in Mr Spongs ‘possession. (cc Adrian Spong)

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Further proof to me that Mr Spong’s The Death of the Virgin is by Vincent, is that Vincent studied the work of other artists, some of them his contemporaries, others ‘Old Masters’ like Rembrandt, Rubens, Dürer, Delacroix, and Velázquez, to name only them.

Vincent would paint, as he said, ‘translations’ of the works of those artists.

He was adamant that he did not copy their work.

As Mr Spong writes in his second book: “By ‘translation’ he (Vincent) explained that he gave the work his own interpretation.”

This way Vincent did his interpretation of Rembrandt’s 1632 etching The Raising of Lazarus by translating only the the lower-right corner of the painting. 

Rembrandt’s Raising of Lazarus

 

Vincent van Gogh’s Raising of Lazarus.

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Thus, as Mr Spong’s research has shown, and as I believe, with the work The Death of the Virgin in his possession, Vincent had ‘translated’ Dürer’s 1510 woodcut Death of the Virgin.

Showing Durer translations on Death of the Virgin in Mr Spong’s possession (cc Adrian Spong

Durer’s Death of the Virgin showing where Vincent had ‘translated’ for his own Death of the Virgin cc Adrian Spong)

What is furthermore very ‘Vincent’ is the book at the foot of the canopy on which the dying Virgin Mary lies. At the foot of the Dürer Death of the Virgin there are steps. There appears to be scribbling on those steps, the steps therefore looking like books. I had thought those steps were books, until Mr Spong had corrected me, thus could Vincent not have thought so too?  Or, if he had been painting from memory he could have remembered the steps as books.

Book at the foot of Virgin’s bed on Death of the Virgin in Mr Spong’s possession (cc Adrian Spong)

Steps which can be mistaken for books at foot of Virgin’s bed on Durer painting (cc Adrian Spong)

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Vincent is certainly best known for his paintings of flowers – who does not know his Sunflowers – but he, the son of a preacher man and having tried becoming a preacher himself, did several religious paintings.

 In 1881, then living in Brussels, he executed a pencil-and-ink-on-paper drawing named Bearers of the Burden and in 1889, a patient of the lunatic asylum ‘Saint-Paul-de-Mausole’ in Saint-Rémy-de Province he did the oil-on-canvas painting named The Angel as well as the oil-on-canvas The Virgin Mourning the Dead Christ which was his ‘translation’ of  Delacroix’s Pietà. Furthermore, in May 1890, still a patient of the asylum, he did another two paintings with a religious theme. These were the oil-on-canvas Good Samaritan and the oil-on paper The Raising of Lazarus, his ‘translation’ of the Rembrandt etching of that name. (See the photo above.)

But Vincent did not paint a dying Virgin Mary.

Why was this?

As he admitted in a letter to Theo of February 2, 1890, he had a problem with painting the Virgin. He wrote in this letter to Theo, having received a batch of photographs from him of paintings by Millet: “You know that I find the Virgin so dazzling that I have not dared to look at her. All at once I felt a ‘not yet’.”

But – why did Vincent’s Virgin of The Death of the Virgin look so odd: why did she have a beard and why did she have those big ears?

As Vincent told Theo and the other members of his family, and friends in letters, while in the asylum he suffered attacks of hallucinations and he heard voices. He also said that he saw people who were in his life, but they looked “weird”.  He also wrote Theo in a letter of September 8, 1889: “The attacks take an absurdly religious turn.” He added that such religious thoughts did sometimes give him great consolation.

Thus, who could Vincent have had in his mind’s eye when he did the Mother of Jesus in The Death of the Virgin in Mr Spong’s possession?

In the letter of February 2, 1890, from the asylum, he wrote to Theo about a woman he knew in Arles, where he was living before his hospitalisation, saying that she looked like an old grandfather. He wrote: “I am a little anxious about a friend who, it seems, is still ill, and whom I should like to see.    She is the one whose portrait I did in yellow and black and she has changed so much.  She has nervous attacks, complicated by a premature change of life, in short, very painful.  She looked like an old grandfather the last time.   I had promised to come back in a fortnight but was taken ill myself.”

The woman was Marie Ginoux wife of Joseph, the proprietor of the ‘Café de la Gare’ next to the house – the Yellow House – which Vincent rented in Arles.

She looked like an old grandfather Vincent had written of her.

Would it be presumptuous to think that in his hallucinations Marie Ginoux had appeared to him the way Jesus’s Mother appears in The Death of the Virgin?

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As for the Virgin’s ears, Vincent not only had a problem with drawing faces and hands, but also with ears. For this reason he always covered ears.

 However, what could be on the head of the Virgin in The Death of the Virgin in Mr Spong’s possession could be an “attifet”, commonly known in English-speaking countries as a “French hood”.

  The “attifet” had first appeared in France in the 16th century and it was worn exclusively by noble ladies, but artists would then begin to adorn the heads of biblical females figures in their paintings with an “attifet”, probably as a sign of respect.

One artist to have done so was the Austrian-born Friedrich Pacher (1435/1508) with his Mary Magdalene altarpiece on view in the Civico Museum in Bolzano, Italy.

 

Mary Magdalene, altarpiece door, late 15th century, by Friedrich Pacher 

Another artist who had done so was the Dutch Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen (1470/1533) in his Mary Magdelena on view in the Saint Louis Art Museum, Saint Louis, Missouri, USA. 

Friedrich Pacher’s Mary Magdalene with an attifet.

Thus, Vincent who had a religious family background, and an in-depth knowledge of the creations of artists throughout the centuries, might certainly have honoured Jesus’s Mother with an “attifet” as other artist had done.

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Vincent was (is) a most copied artist as so often a ‘Vincent van Gogh’ painting appears on the market, which Amsterdam’s ‘Van Gogh Museum’ who has the final say in whether a painting is a Van Gogh, declares it as a fake.   There is even a famous case in France when a father and son faked Van Goghs and even fooled Paris’s Louvre Museum’s experts.  (I deliberately do not name the father and son.)

So, could The Death of the Virgin in Mr Spong’s possession be such a fake?

Yes, it could, but as Mr Spong points out in his second book the possibility that someone had executed a painting along Vincent’s style and employing his characteristics can be dismissed because of two things which is not easily visible to the naked eye.  (I did not see them until Mr Spong had drawn my attention to them.)

The two are:            

  1. Brush hairs caught in the paint surface. Vincent, always short of money, and money and equipment late in arriving from Theo, often used worn brushes. Such worn brushes would lose some hairs, the hairs sticking to the paint.
  2. Tightly grouped pin holes. Vincent pinned his paper and canvases to his drawing board, the pins having left marks in the corners of the paper and canvases. Mr Spong writes in his second book: “Vincent would tightly group his pinholes in each corner of the work. A creature of habit … aren’t we all? Vincent would habitually use this method. How likely is it that a forger would know of Vincent’s technique of pinning a work to his drawing board?”

    Brush hairs on Death of the Virgin in Mr Spongs’s possession (cc Adrian Spong_

     

    More brush hairs in the Death of the Virgin in Mr Spong’s possession (cc Adrian Spong

PIn holes on Death of the Virgin in Mr Spong’s possession (cc Adrian Spong)

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The question remains how come the two artworks in Mr Spong’s possession have remained undiscovered?

Vincent was a most prolific artist. He did about 900 paintings and 1100 drawings and sketches.

He was though careless with his creations, leaving them behind when he moved residence, or, posting them to his family, or giving or posting them to friends or other artists, or merely displacing them, not knowing later how or where he had done so.

When he left the asylum, he left some of his works behind, for a reason only he knew. Perhaps he had intended to pick them up later, or perhaps, unsatisfied with them, he had not wanted them. French writer Marie Gasquet (1872/1960) who was born in Saint-Remy-de-Province and had lived there all her life, had been quoted in books that Vincent had left 20 paintings behind at the asylum. What those paintings were, she did not say, and the whereabouts of those paintings are unknown. The writer did have one of Vincent’s oil on canvas paintings – View of the Asylum with a Pine Tree – which Joseph, son of the asylum’s Dr Théophile Peyron had given her: Vincent had given the painting to the doctor who disliked it! (The painting can be viewed in Paris’s Orsay Museum).

Vincent’s View of the Asylum with a Pine Tree

Vincent had indeed given some of his paintings to the asylum’s staff as well as to his fellow patients whom he called “my companions in misfortune”.  They did not think much of the gifted paintings considering those as the scribblings of a madman. So little was thought of the paintings that Joseph Peyron would later claim that he and a friend had used several of Vincent’s paintings for archery practice.

Vincent had also left paintings behind in various places before his asylum stay.

In 1885 when he moved from the Dutch village of Neunen, where his late father had been vicar, for Antwerp in Belgium, he had left behind with his widowed mother hundreds of paintings and sketches and unused canvases. It has been estimated that what had remained in Neunen with his mother amounted to his entire production from the time he had begun painting in the 1870s. In other words his production of over fifteen years.

Mrs Van Gogh and Willemien, the spinster daughter who lived with her, would in 1889 move from Neunen to the Dutch town, Breda, and then from Breda they moved to Leiden. When Mrs Van Gogh was preparing to leave Neunen, she had piled all of Vincent’s works in her possession into wooden boxes. Once in Breda, she had told a removal company, owned by a man named Adrianus Schrauwen, to store the boxes for her in his attic. Later, when she left Breda for Leiden, she had not bothered to take the boxes with her: these had therefore remained in Breda with Schrauwen.

In Leiden, Mrs Van Gogh had moved into a house of which the owner was a certain Barend den Houter and he had helped her with her move. Knowing of the boxes she had not brought along, he had asked her what were in them and she had told him that he could have whatever were in them. This woman,  this strict Christian believed that a man should earn his living by doing an honest day’s work, and that her son Vincent was an idler, put no value, financial or emotional to what were in those wooden boxes.

In 1902, a man named Jan Couvreur, owner of a bric-a-brac stall in a Leiden flea market bought some copperware from Barend den Houter.  Den Houter told Couvreur that he could have whatever were in the boxes.

Couvreur, having opened the boxes, chucked out many of the paintings and sketches and sold the unused canvases. Furthermore, in the following months he began selling in the flea market those paintings and sketches he had kept.  His asking price for each was five cents. Previously, he had taken the artworks to an art dealer for valuation and the reply was that they were valueless.

Two world wars followed.

The Netherlands remained neutral in the first but was occupied by Nazi Germany in the Second which resulted in a great movement of people and possessions across the country and even from the country.

On April 25, 1938, some 38 years after Vincent death, and his greatness as an artist globally recognised, Couvreur was interviewed by the Dutch daily De Telegraaf about the Van Goghs he had had in his possession. He told the daily that his wife had looked at the paintings, and seeing many nude studies, she had told him that she did not want those in the house. “I said to my wife, you can never know what those things may turn out to be worth, but my wife said: those things go out the door or I go out the door. In such a case, things go out the door.”

He had put all the offensive paintings in a bag which he had taken to a paper mill in the town of Tilburgh. There at the mill, the Van Goghs were pulped.

Ever since, people have been wondering how many of the Van Goghs which were in Mrs Van Gogh’s boxes – the Breda Boxes as they have become known – had survived.

Not only Vincent but his family too having been so careless with his creations, is it so impossible that the two artworks in Mr Spong’s possessions are Van Goghs?

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What we do know about the two artworks in Mr Spong’s possession – The Death of the Virgin and the Semi-Reclining Nude  – is that the two were framed in the United Kingdom in November 1945. We know this because of the Radio Times double-spread within their frame.

I believe that WW2 having ended, a British soldier who had landed on the beaches of Normandy in June 1944 for D Day had come across The Death of the Virgin painting and the Semi-Reclining Nude sketch, in a bombed-out building either in the Netherlands or in Northern France, and had liked what he saw and had taken the two back with him to England. There in England he had framed the two quite haphazardly in November 1945.

In 1944 such a soldier would probably have been in his twenties. In 2010 when Mr Spong had bought the two at an auction, this soldier would have been in his eighties. As Mr Spong said in his first book: “At that age children clear out the houses of their departed parents, and their possessions end up with auctioneers.”

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The years since Vincent’s departure from the asylum, when he had left, according to Marie Gasquet, 20 paintings behind, and there had been two world wars, there had indeed been many opportunities for those paintings to have been removed.

In WW1 the asylum had become a detention centre for France’s enemies.

In WW2, France occupied by Nazi Germany, the asylum had become a barracks for German soldiers. (From June 1940, the Provence region of the country in which Saint-Remy-de-Province falls, had remained unoccupied, but from November 1942, the Allies having moved into North Africa, the Germans had also occupied Provence which remained so until August 1944 when U.S. and French troops had arrived, the Germans having fled.)

The paintings Vincent had thus left behind at the asylum could have been carried away by scores of people, those who had taken them having had no idea that Vincent van Gogh had painted them.

Thus, two had ended up with an auctioneer in England where Mr Spong had found them.

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You, having read this piece of mine, and wanting to go deeper into Mr Spong’s discovery – share his discovery – be you an art expert, art student, art enthusiast, a director of a museum, or editor of or writer for an art publication, or just someone interested in art or in Vincent van Gogh, Mr Spong will be delighted to hear from you.

His email address is:

aspong1@gmail.com

His two books are free and he will not hesitate to mail them to anyone interested in his find.

Or, you can download them at:

https://1drv.ms/u/s!Amj1JVpSVmGygYx4vdgRWXr0ezTT2w

The link for Vincent and the Virgin, Mr Spong’s first book

https://1drv.ms/b/s!Amj1JVpSVmGygYx5kHWDuxijML5Sdw

The link for Vincent van Gogh  Report, Mr Spong’s second book.

You can also always contact me by email on this website.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Marilyn Z. Tomlins

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