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Van Gogh paints outdoors – pin holes and leaves in the paint

We do not know exactly which painting was first executed out doors by Van Gogh, but in August 1882, he had completed about fifteen painted studies and from his description he indicates that he painted these en plein air. Unfortunately, the whereabouts of all but five of these studies are unknown. On 20th August 1882, he wrote to his brother describing the subject of one such painted study on which he was working: ‘The [..] study from the woods is of large green beech trunks on a ground with dry leaves and a small figure of a girl in white.’

Girl in a wood is one of the surviving studies. This painting now belongs to the Kröller-Müller Museum who very generously allowed us to examine this painting in their conservation studio.

Vincent van Gogh, Girl in a wood, 1882. Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo

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Painting paper

It is painted on a paper support which seems to have been primed and to which Van Gogh referred as being ‘painting paper’. The smooth and even distribution of the ground layer over the support, its consistent lead based composition coupled with the fact that the ground extends right up to the edges of the paper suggest it as being a commercially prepared paper support. The primed paper was probably attached to either a canvas or a board with tacks at the corners of the paper; these corners are missing. 

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Perspective

After attaching the support, Van Gogh writes that he struggles with achieving the correct perspective for his chosen subject. In order to facilitate this, he got down on his knees and employed the use of a perspective frame to first capture the scene. The view point of the composition suggests that he was at a lower angle relative to the receding tree trunks. In infrared reflectography vertical and horizontal lines and a circle (in the top left corner) have been drawn with a pencil outlining onto the primed support a perspective frame, notably the one with the squared grid which he normally used for his drawings.  What can also be seen in the reflectograph, confirmed by microscopic examination, is the presence of charcoal used to delineate the form of three of the trees.

Infrared reflectography of 'Girl in wood' showing the use of a perspective frame and underdrawing in charcoal of the tree trunks.

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Pin holes and leaves

The tack holes which are visible on the paint surface indicate that they were applied after the painting process, as wet paint can be seen to have sunk into the hole and the head of the tack has created a ridge in the semi-dry paint. This coupled with the location of the holes strongly suggest that they relate to the use of spacers (taquets bois) to transport his studies back to the studio rather than as a result of having been pinned to the wall after painting.

But the ultimate physical evidence of the work having been painted outdoors can be found in the upper most paint layers: the presence of leaves stuck in the paint!

Photomicrograph of a hole in the paint surface of a 'Girl in a Wood' probably as a result of the use of a spacer.

Photomicrograph of a leaf found stuck in the paint layers of 'Girl in a Wood'

 

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