Comment »

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.


Comments are closed.