Vincent van Gogh … Death of the Virgin … Is this painting a Van Gogh? …

  In 2010 Englishman Adrian Spong, expert art historian, collector and dealer was browsing through the items his local auctioneer had on display. A 19th century landscape watercolour caught his skilled eye. He learnt that the watercolour was part of a five-painting lot. Despite being interested only in the watercolour, he, all the same, began […]


Death of the Virgin (cc Adrian Spong)

In 2010 Englishman Adrian Spong, expert art historian, collector and dealer was browsing through the items his local auctioneer had on display.

A 19th century landscape watercolour caught his skilled eye.

He learnt that the watercolour was part of a five-painting lot.

Despite being interested only in the watercolour, he, all the same, began bidding. Chased up by another two bidders, also art dealers, to the sum of £200 ($250 – €220), more than he would have wished to pay, he became the owner of the five paintings. There and then the two unsuccessful bidders asked him if he would be interested in selling one of the five paintings.

Adrian’s reply was that he was not.

The man pointed out which painting he wanted to buy, and said that it might be by a well-known artist.

Yes, one of the paintings was, as Adrian would say, “weird”. It was behind glass and 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, on the table in his garage.

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

He opened the frame.

Says he: “There is always a tingle of excitement when opening the frame of a work. Is there another work inside too? Is there some information, perhaps an inscription written on the back of the work?”

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

Adrian’s 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 the condiment on the table.  And so it was during WW2 as well.

Also, within the frame, and behind the ‘weird’ painting executed with thinned oil on thin paper measuring 39.5×51.5 cm (15.5×20.27 inches), Adrian 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 the frame was completely sealed with this double spread: Adrian had to break the seal.

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

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

The sketch was of what?

It was of a reclining headless nude.

Semi-Reclining Nude (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.

Here is the photo again:

Death of the Virgin (cc Adrian Spong)


Adrian 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, who I will from now on call Vincent doing so without disrespect, 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 59.9×73.7 cm (23.6×29 inches) can today be viewed in the Kröller-Müller Museum in the village of Otterlo, some 80 kms (49.7 miles) from Amsterdam.

Reclining Female Nude (cc [photo in public domain)

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

Adrian, comparing the pencil-on-paper study of the ‘Semi-Reclining Nude’ in his possession with the Van Gogh Museum’s ‘Reclining Nude’ of 1887, immediately recognised the similarity between the two because of the energetic ‘V’ hatching, also known as ‘shark-teeth’ hatching, on the two.

‘V’ hatching detail (cc Adrian Spong)

He also saw another similarity between the ‘Semi-Reclining Nude’ in his possession and another Van Gogh female nude, the ‘Seated Female Nude’, also executed in 1887. This was a practice doodle in the upper right of the study ‘Seated Female Nude’ and a similar practice doodle on the ‘Semi-reclining nude’

Seated Female Nude 1887 detail (cc Adrian Spong)

In the photo below you will see a similar doodle:

Semi-Reclining Nude showing doodle (cc Adrian Spong)

As far as the ‘The Death of the Virgin’ painting in his possession was concerned, Adrian could not compare it to any other painting by Vincent of a dying Virgin Mary, because Vincent had not ever painted a dying Virgin Mary.

 He did execute several ‘religious’ paintings. For example, in 1881, when living in Brussels, he executed the pencil-and-ink-on-paper drawing named ‘Bearers of the Burden, and in 1889, when he was a patient of the lunatic asylum ‘Saint-Paul-de-Mausole’ in Saint-Rémy-de Province in the South of France, he executed the oil-on-canvas painting named ‘The Angel `as well as the oil-on-canvas named ‘The Virgin Mourning the Dead Christ’ which he had based on Delacroix’s ‘Pietà. Furthermore, in May of 1890, still a patient of the asylum, he executed another two paintings with a religious theme. These were the oil-on-canvas ‘Good Samaritan’, and the oil-on paper ‘The Raising of Lazarus’, which he had based on Rembrant’s etching of that name.

But there was no ‘Dying-Virgin’ painting for comparison.

Vincent did admit on February 2, 1890, in a letter to Theo that he had a problem with depicting the Mother of Jesus in a painting. He wrote, having received a batch of photographs from his brother of paintings by Millet for him to study, “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’.”

So, having no Van Gogh depiction of a dying Virgin Mary, Adrian searched further for a similarity between the ‘Death of the Virgin’ in his possession and Vincent’s unique style and techniques, just as he had looked for similarities between Vincent’s ‘Reclining Nude’ of 1887 and the ‘Semi-Reclining Nude’ in his possession.

In a book of more than 100 pages, Adrian recounts his find of the Death of the Virgin painting and of the Semi-Reclining Nude sketch, and of his long and meticulous investigation to ascertain whether the two were Van Gogh creations, and the conclusion he had reached.

The book Vincent and the Virgin. The Greatest art story ever told – can be downloaded for free here!Amj1JVpSVmGygYx4vdgRWXr0ezTT2w

As it is a bulky file and you have a slow internet connection, Adrian will post you the book, at no charge to you.

Studying The Death of the Virgin, Adrian found thirty technical similarities, unique to Vincent, between the painting and Vincent’s other works.

Here are the most important:

  • The Juxtaposition of ‘The Materia Medica’ with the religious volume which is unique to Vincent.
  • Thinned oil on thin paper without a ground. This not only exactly correlates with ‘The Raising of Lazarus’ but is an extremely unusual method.
  • Blocks of hooked brushstrokes, also unique to Vincent.
  • The ‘Cloisonné’ type figure (the figure on the left of the painting reading the large book) is composed in the same way as ‘The Sower’, the oil-on-canvas of 32.5×40.3 cm (12.69×15.86 inches) today in Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum. Both figures are unusual if not unique in fine art. The two also have similar ‘V’ or ‘sharks-teeth’ hatching, an impossible coincidence.
  • Strongly rhythmic tightly arranged brush strokes as can been seen on the curtains.
  • Faulty sequence of development. (The foreground is painted before the background.)
  • Preference for and use of zinc white throughout the work. (Convention demands lead white for mixing pigments.)
  • Conflicting perspectives.
  • Brushstrokes are ordered in the direction of the focal point.
  • Vigorous brush strokes.

Vincent made no secret that he sought inspiration from the works of other artists, but aware that he could be accused of copying the works of others, and worse, of having plagiarised other artists’ creations, he said that he did ‘translations’ of the works of others.

Adrian, therefore, next studied the paintings depicting the death of the Virgin Mary by artists Vincent had admired in order to find similarities with the Death of the Virgin in his possession.

There was Caravaggio’s oil-on-canvas executed around 1601; Albrect Durer’s woodcut executed around 1510, and the paintings of Joos van Cleve, known as the ‘Master of the Death of Mary’.

Death of the Virgin by Durer (photo public domain)


Death of the Virgin by Caravaggio (photo public domain)


Death of the Virgin by Joos Van Cleve ([photo in public domain)

Another Death of the Virgin by Joos van Cleve (photo in publish domain)

Vincent, the son of a preacher of the Protestant ‘Dutch Reformed Church’ had, despite having once desired becoming a preacher like his father, developed a strange relationship with the strict Calvinism of the church.

 Both his parents had a rigid confidence in the Christian Bible’s teachings which, according to them, guided the human race.

Accordingly, when once Vincent was an adult, and had begun to read the works of non-conformist writers like Zola, Voltaire, Tolstoy, Maupassant, Victor Hugo, Balzac, Dostoevsky, Goethe and the Goncourt Brothers – to name just them – and had seen the poverty and hardships of the men working in the coal mines of Belgium’s Borinage, his trust in the Scriptures had diminished. He had come to learn of a God different from the God of love and compassion of his parents.

It was this Vincent who would become victim of the terrible heritage of his mother’s people, the Carbentus family. This was insanity. His periods of insanity – of acting so unconventionally which scared his neighbours and made him impossible to live with – was worsened by bouts of gonorrhoea and later syphilis.

In April 1889, living in the quiet village of Arles in Southern France, he had admitted himself to the ‘Saint-Paul-de-Mausole’ Mental Asylum in nearby Saint-Rémy-de Province, after having been hospitalised twice. The first time was because of an incident in his house when the lobe of his left ear had been slashed off, and the second time because his neighbours had petitioned the police to commit him to an asylum.

Yet, despite the mental illness, Vincent had continued to paint.

On 29 April 1890, about to leave Arles for the village of Auvers-sur-Oise north of Paris, and where he would die on July 29 that year, aged 37, he wrote a letter to his mother, Anna van Gogh-Carbentus and his youngest sister, the unmarried Willemien (Wilhelmina) van Gogh. He wrote: “I still painted, among other things a reminiscence of Brabant, cottages with mossy roofs and beech hedges on an autumn evening with a stormy sky, the sun setting red in reddish clouds.”

Vincent had written in the letter about having painted several works.

The Death of the Virgin, perhaps?

The Semi-Reclining Nude, perhaps?

Why not?

Vincent was a most prolific artist: he would often need only a day to do a painting.

He was also quite careless with his paintings, leaving them behind when he moved residence, or posting them to his family, or displacing them how and where he could not recall.

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.

Mrs Van Gogh and Willemien, who lived with her, would in 1889 move from Neunen to another Dutch town, Breda, and then from Breda to Leiden. When she 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.

Vincent knew that she had left the boxes in Breda. He wrote to her in the same letter in which he had told her that he was still painting despite his illness (see above: letter of 29 April 1890) and asked: “Do you still happen to have any of my old studies and drawings? Even if they’re no good in themselves, they can refresh my memory and provide information for new work …”

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. Vincent’ mother, this strict Christian who 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 the wooden boxes and whatever were in them.

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 would add that he had put all the offensive paintings in a bag which he had taken to a paper mill in the town of Tilburgh to be pulped.

Ever since, people have been wondering where those paintings which had come from Mrs Van Gogh’s boxes – the Breda Boxes as they have become known -and which had survived Couvreur’s destruction, could be.

At the end of 2003 to the beginning of 2004, the Breda Museum in Breda had hosted an exhibition named ‘Vincent Van Gogh: Lost and Found’ of paintings believed to have come from the Breda Boxes but which art experts had though examined in 1940 and had declared forgeries. The museum could attest to the authenticity of only one of the paintings in its exhibition – Houses near The Hague – claiming that x-ray analysis had proven it to be a genuine Van Gogh. Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum had however contested its authenticity: the museum has the final word on whether a painting is a genuine Van Gogh.

The question now is whether The Death of the Virgin painting and the Semi-Reclining Nude drawing in Adrian’s possession are genuine Van Goghs.

What we do know, because of the Radio Times double-spread, is that the two were framed in the United Kingdom in November 1945, in other words after WW2 had ended.


My thoughts


I believe that the two are genuine Van Goghs.

Adrian Spong contacted me because, being a Van Gogh admirer and enthusiast, I had written several articles about Vincent which were published on the Web.

Unable to download his material because of a slow internet connection, he had posted me his book.

The moment I looked at the photograph of The Death of the Virgin, and saw the Bible in the bottom-right of the painting with the book ‘Materia Medica’ on top of the Bible, I thought that this was a Van Gogh creation.

Firstly, a book was Vincent’s favourite motif.

Secondly, as both he and Theo suffered from syphilis they had turned from conventional medicine to consult doctors who treated their patients with homoeopathic remedies. In Paris, Vincent then living with Theo, the two brothers had consulted the Dr Louis Rivet and next the Dr David Gruby, both considered health gurus.

Therefore, who but Vincent would have laid a book – the ‘Materia Medica’ at that time the accepted reference book for doctors who rejected conventional medicine for traditional medicine, on top of a Bible.

Only Vincent, because the message he was conveying, was that, just as he had rejected the Calvinism of his parents because it had failed to provide him with the solace he wished for from his Belief in God, he had rejected conventional medicine as it had failed to offer him relief from his venereal illnesses.

I looked further and I saw several more Van Gogh characteristics. Indeed, Adrian had listed these in his book.

They are: Tightly packed parallel brush-stokes; ‘Stick’ figures; uneven foreground; serried parallel rows of rhythmic tightly-packed brush-strokes; muddy faces; dark heavy outlines; an off perspective, and the odd leg of the character standing on the left. As Adrian writes in his book, calling the leg a ‘rubber’ leg: “Vincent very often imparted a slight arc to his brush strokes and outlining. The result is the unnatural leg.”

He had encircled each as you will see on the photo below.

Characteristics of Vincent’s work on ‘Death of the Virgin’ (cc Adrian Spong)

But why did Vincent choose to paint a religious painting?

We know from his letters that while a patient of the ‘Saint-Paul-de-Mausole’ Mental Asylum, he was plagued by religions nightmares.

He wrote to Theo from the asylum on September 8, 1889: “The attacks take an absurdly religious turn,” but he adds that religious thoughts sometimes gave him great consolation.

He wrote to Theo on May 3, 1890 from the asylum: “I have tried a copy of the ‘Good Samaritan” of Delacroix,” and he scribbled a sketch of a painting of three figures. He wrote that these three figures were: “The dead man and his two sisters.”

The previous day he had written to Theo that he was going to try to work from Rembrandt’s ‘Man at Prayer’.

Eventually, he executed three religious paintings while hospitalised.

These religious paintings were:

‘The Good Samaritan’, ‘The Raising of Lazarus’ and ‘The Virgin Mourning the Dead Christ’.

From his letters we know that he was mixing and remixing the colour blue sometimes describing the result as ‘prussian blue’ or’ heavenly blue’.


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 France, and had liked what he saw and had taken the two back with him to England, to frame the two himself in November 1945.

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

Vincent was a most prolific painter: sometimes he did a painting a day. It is estimated today that he had executed more than 2,000 artworks.

All Van Gogh experts believe that there are still Van Gogh artworks to be found.

I therefore urge the Van Gogh Museum to look at The Death of the Virgin painting and at the Semi-Reclining Nude sketch in Adrian’s possession.  To ask him to bring the painting and the sketch to Amsterdam.



















Marilyn Z. Tomlins

3 Responses

9-19-2017 at 16:17:13

This is a really interesting post. I’m not an art expert, so I can’t really render an opinion on whether these two pieces of artwork are from van Gogh. But if Adrian went so far as to write a book about it, he must have consulted an art historian or appraiser. What were their opinions? That’s the only thing really missing from this post.

9-19-2017 at 16:53:47

This is extremely interesting and fascinating. I love the detective work which points to a need
to find out more. Would be worth consulting with the experts in the field at major auction houses.

9-22-2017 at 16:16:30

Fascinating article, I loved all the background information, and agree with you and Adrian that these paintings do appear to be by Van Gogh.

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