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MOBILE XRF: rapid identification of pigments

In this final film in the series Techniques from the physics/chemistry laboratory, we meet Luc Megens, who has a portable device that can be used in the museum to gain a quick first impression of which pigments were used in a painting.


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Van Gogh’s contacts with other artists in Paris

For this studio practice project, I have been delving into the historical literature in search of remarks by Van Gogh’s contemporaries about the period when he lived and worked in Paris (1886-1888), to learn more about his association with other artists. Many of these comments about Van Gogh are included in the booklet Van Gogh and Montmartre, to be published in June 2011 as part of the series Van Gogh in Focus.

Van Gogh’s correspondence, which forms a crucial source of information for us today, was very limited during his time in Paris. Because he was living with his brother Theo, he had no need to write to him. The recollections of Van Gogh’s contemporaries offer an interesting perspective on this idiosyncratic artist, who took little notice of the other pupils in the studio of Fernand Cormon and pushed ahead stubbornly on his own.

Het atelier Cormon, 1885-1886, Albi, Musée Toulouse-Lautrec.

The Atelier Cormon, 1885-1886. Top row, far right: Bernard (?). Foreground, left: Toulouse-Lautrec. To the right of the easel: Cormon.

A fellow student wrote, ‘He was an excellent colleague who was best left alone. As a man of the north, he had no love for Parisian wit, and so the jokers in the studio avoided playing pranks on him. They were a little afraid of what might happen. When we discussed “art” and someone disagreed with him and backed him into a corner, he would launch into a terrifying rant.’ The artists who became better acquainted with him, however, were deeply impressed by his ideas and his limitless enthusiasm for his work, although they did think he was odd.
Many of Van Gogh’s contacts were made at the shop of the paint dealer Julien ‘Père’ Tanguy, who stored and exhibited the work of avant-garde artists, including Van Gogh. It was at Tanguy’s shop that, in the autumn of 1886, Van Gogh befriended Emile Bernard, a French artist fifteen years younger whom he had previously met at Cormon’s studio.

Vincent van Gogh, Portret van Père Tanguy, Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum (Vincent van Gogh Stichting)

Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Père Tanguy, 1887-88

Bernard brought Van Gogh into closer contact with Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Louis Anquetin, whom he had met earlier at the Atelier Cormon. We know that Van Gogh would also regularly display his work to other artists at Toulouse-Lautrec’s studio in rue Caulaincourt, around the corner from Theo’s apartment. Suzanne Valadon, who modelled for Toulouse-Lautrec, described the scene: ‘I remember that Van Gogh would come to our weekly gatherings at Lautrec’s. He would arrive with a heavy painting under his arm, set it down in a corner, but always in a well-lit spot, and wait for us to give him some attention. No one would notice him. He would come and sit down facing us, trying to read the looks in our eyes, barely participating in the conversation. Then he would become fed up and leave with his latest work. But a week later he would be back and the entire ritual would start over from the beginning.’
Another avant-garde artist who Van Gogh met at the paint dealer’s shop was Paul Signac, who later said, ‘Yes, I got to know Van Gogh at Père Tanguy’s shop. I also met him in Asnières and Saint-Ouen. We would paint by the water, dine at the outdoor café and return to Paris on foot, along the avenues of Saint-Ouen and Clichy. Van Gogh, dressed in plumbers’ overalls, had little dots of paint on his sleeves. He would walk right beside me, gesticulating and waving his still-wet 30-centimetre canvas, and thus polychroming himself and the passers-by.’


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What old photos can tell us about ink

Pen-and-ink drawing was one of Van Gogh’s favourite working methods. He preferred the medium to charcoal, and while he also used pencils and black chalk frequently and with pleasure, it was sketching with ink and a quill, steel, or reed pen that brought him the greatest satisfaction. But the ink in some of his drawings no longer looks as fresh as it must once did, because of discolouration and fading. To find out how drastically some pen drawings have changed over time, we can turn to old photographs.


Ink can sometimes fade almost completely. For instance, Van Gogh used a purple ink so sensitive to light that some scenes are now hardly recognisable. A case in point is the drawing Montmajour in the collection of the Van Gogh Museum. The fine lines of ink are no longer purple, but light brown. Eighty years ago the scene was much easier to recognise, as we can see in a photograph used in 1928 for J.-B. de la Faille’s major catalogue raisonné of Van Gogh’s oeuvre. Although the photograph is black and white, we can make out many more lines. Still, the colour must have lost quite a bit of its intensity even before 1928. In this project, we will go on investigating how deeply purple the drawing may originally have been.

Montmajour (May/June 1888), drawing with purple ink, Van Gogh Museum (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)
Left – present-day appearance; Right – photograph from 1928


Fortunately, Van Gogh did not use this purple ink often in his drawings. But there are also black inks that can fade or discolour, usually becoming more brownish. It is not always clear from the pen drawing itself whether the ink was completely black at first, or whether some brownish tinge was present from the start. In some drawings, clear black lines appear alongside brown ones; this suggests that Van Gogh used two different types of ink. In this project, we are trying to determine what kinds of ink Van Gogh used, whether they discoloured, and if so, how severely.

Old reproductions help us in this research, and fortunately, there are very early images of a number of pen drawings. Some of these are even in colour. In 1919 and 1928 Julius Meier-Graefe in Germany assembled portfolios of colour reproductions of Van Gogh drawings. A few decades earlier, 18 reproductions of Van Gogh drawings had been published by Willem van Meurs in Haarlem. They were black-and-white images, but the reproduction method developed by Van Meurs, known as isography, was of such high quality that many did not even notice the difference between the original drawings and the reproductions.

The reproductions below clearly show the loss of contrast in the fine pen drawing Fountain in the garden of the hospital [inrchting] as the ink gradually faded and turned brown. It is not yet entirely clear whether the lines of the drawing were originally a deep shade of black, but the earliest reproduction, at bottom, made by Van Meurs, does show that the light-dark contrasts used to be much stronger. Van Gogh’s original emphasis comes across much more forcefully: the evocative play of shadows in the brilliant sunlight filtering through the branches of the trees.

Kleurenreproductie 1928 Isografie ca. 1900
Fountain in the garden of the hospital (May/June 1889), pen and ink drawing, Van Gogh Museum (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Upper left – the present-day situation, primarily faded brown ink.
Upper right
– colour reproduction from 1928, primarily dark brown ink with some black.
Bottom left – black and white reproduction (isography) from c. 1900, in which all the lines look substantially darker.


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Van Gogh paints outdoors – an introduction

After Van Gogh began his first painted studies in the studio under the tutelage of Anton Mauve at the end of 1881, followed by a period of eight months of extensive practice in drawing, he began to look outdoors for motifs which he could paint. At the beginning of August 1882, his brother, Theo, paid him a short visit to The Hague and gave him a donation which allowed Van Gogh to purchase materials necessary to paint. On 5th August 1882, he wrote to his brother thanking him for enabling him to ‘go on painting with new vigour’ as he now has ‘all the essentials for proper painting.’ Letter 253

In the same letter gives a list of materials he has bought, amongst them, numerous oil and water colour paints, and a  ‘moist colour box’  he has bought as being a ‘valuable piece of equipment for paintings outdoors, in fact absolutely essential.’

He later writes that this box fits inside a painters box so he can complete watercolour and oil studies at the same time. Prior to that it seems that Van Gogh was using saucers to carry his paint, but he considered them ‘awkward to carry, especially if you have other items as well’.  He also mentions buying sheets of a coarse grain of paper, double Ingres under the name of Papier Torchon. At the same time as buying all these materials, it seems that he ordered a perspective frame ( Fig. 1) to be made to his specifications in order to withstand difficult surfaces outdoors such as on sand dunes or on the uneven terrain of a forest landscape.

Figure 1. Sketch B. 'Beach at Scheveningen with perspective frame' in letter 253 dated 5th August 1882, The Hague

It could be said with the growing popularity of artists working outside, companies that were manufacturing artists’ materials started to provide a wide range of equipment to facilitate artists in the pursuit of going outside to paint. Contemporary catalogues advertised a broad range of materials to enable the artist to work in a manner not unlike in their studio, offering them portable easels, diverse paint boxes (such as the boite de campagne, a complete outdoor painting kit) the lids of which could be used as easels or for pinning supports for painting. (Fig 2)

Figure 2. An example of an artist's paint box for outdoor use.

Other items included folding chairs, parasols, containers to hold diluents and media. One saw the development of paper supports for oil painting, the production of millboard or carton and small accessories such canvas spacers (taquets) to allow for a number of fresh studies to be carried back safely to the studio. (Fig. 3)

Figure 3. A spacer used to keep still wet canvas separated during transit.

The problematic nature of the elements did not go unnoticed to the manufacturer as a range of gadgets for securing an easel to the ground against strong winds were also developed. The practicalities of painting outdoors effected Van Gogh just as it did other artists, he writes about issues he had with the transportation of materials, how he overcame the adverse weather conditions in which he painted and the reactions he received from members of the public.

‘The politeness of the populace of The Hague towards painters is, however, demonstrated by the fact that a fellow behind me, or probably at a window, suddenly spat a wad of tobacco onto my paper — life can be very trying at times.’ Letter 262 .

He bought himself clothing, ‘a tough, warm pair of trousers…a pair of sturdy shoes’ stating that he was ‘now fully prepared to face the elements.’ Letter 254. It seems that from these letters the artist was indeed making preparations to equip himself with the correct tools to be able to paint en plein air.

It is thought that by the end of August, Van Gogh had made about fifteen painted studies, many of these are now lost. It is also believed that he painted most if not all of them en plein air. The ‘Dunes’ (Fig.3) is considered to be one of his first outdoor painted studies.

Figure 4. Vincent van Gogh.'The Dunes', oil on paper on panel (35,5 x 49,5cm) F2/JH 173. Private collection

In the following part of this series  Van Gogh Paints Outdoors, we shall focus on the results found from technical examination carried out on one of the artist’s early studies painted in oil and executed outdoors, ‘Girl in a Wood’ (Fig. 4) from the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo.

Figure 5. Vincent van Gogh 'Girl in a Wood' Oil on paper on canvas (37 x 58,8 cm) F8/JH182 Kröller-Müller Museum Otterlo. inv. no. KM107.592


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