Van Gogh’s Studio Practice: an introduction

The Van Gogh Museum, the Institute for Cultural Heritage of the Netherlands and Shell form an innovative, multidisciplinary team pursuing a collaborative research project in art history, technology and natural science: Van Gogh’s Studio Practice.
The objective is to gain new insight into Van Gogh’s working method by investigating every facet of his creative process and his works of art, and through comparison with his contemporaries.

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Into the lab

Autumn is here and nature is changing her coat. An invitation to go outside and savour the fresh fragrances of a new season. Vincent van Gogh, too, was inspired by life outdoors at this time of year. In 1882 he painted Girl in the woods in situ, as the leaves we have found embedded in the paint prove. That is just one of the remarkable discoveries to emerge from Van Gogh’s studio practice, a joint research project by the Van Gogh Museum, Shell and the Netherlands Cultural Heritage Agency. This is the final blog posting about the project, but in 2013 it is due to reach a spectacular climax in the form of a major exhibition. Read the rest of this entry »

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A physiological look at complementary colours


 We have already touched on the topic of complementary colours a few times on this website. But just what makes this complementary effect so special? Underlying this phenomenon is a physiological explanation. The optic nerve that translates incoming information into shapes and colours has a very distinctive property that helps it to process colour. Each colour that falls upon the retina is perceived as if it were an attack that must be weakened. The eye does this by instantly creating a matching filter in a complementary colour in order to protect the optic nerve from irritation. This filter in a complementary colour acts to somewhat neutralise the original colour.  Read the rest of this entry »

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Van Gogh shows his true colours…

Sometimes, my job is like an episode of CSI: I can solve mysteries about a work of art with the help of evidence I find in the lab. A few months ago, researchers from the Van Gogh Museum came to me and requested that I examine a small painting of a seated nude girl using X-ray fluorescence spectrometry (XRF). Van Gogh produced this painting in Paris in the spring of 1886, at the studio of his teacher Fernand Cormon. He painted it on a small canvas that he had previously used for a flower still life, as we know from examining an X-ray photograph of the piece. The photograph is difficult to interpret, but we can make out a bouquet of flowers in a tall vase. X-ray photographs are always black and white, however. I knew that the XRF technique would not only produce a sharper image, but also tell us the colours of the concealed flower still life.

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Studio behind bars

Where did Van Gogh work? Behind bars in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence


In May 1889 Van Gogh was admitted to an asylum for the mentally ill in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, not far from Arles. He would remain there for a year. In addition to the standard cell assigned to every patient, he was allowed to use another one as a studio. There was plenty of room: about thirty cells were unoccupied.

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A wider horizon

Van Gogh in the flow: Van Gogh took great pleasure in painting, making clear artistic choices but also leaving some things to chance. But did he really mean to make those strange splotches on his painting of a landscape at twilight?