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A glittering sun

Series

One of the topics of interest within our research project is to examine how Van Gogh modified his approach in the course of making serial paintings that depict the same theme. An example is his series of paintings of The Sower set against a landscape dominated by the bright sphere of a sinking sun. In later versions, the sun came to hover like a halo above the sower’s head, taking on a symbolic significance. It is fascinating to observe how he chose different painterly solutions to render this significant  feature in the series of works examined.  

Vincent van Gogh, The sower, 1888, Van Gogh museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation), oil on canvas, 32.5 x 40.3 cm

Vincent van Gogh, The sower, 1888, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Vincent van Gogh, The sower, 1888, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, oil on canvas, 64.2 x 80.3 cm

Vincent van Gogh, The sower, 1888, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo

Vincent van Gogh, The Sower, Stiftung Sammlung E.G. Bührle, Zürich, oil on canvas, 73.5 x 93 cm

Vincent van Gogh, The Sower, Stiftung Sammlung E.G. Bührle, Zürich

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Luminous spheres

To draw the near-circular shapes of the suns Van Gogh could turn to a ready solution,  simply tracing around a  round object of the appropriate size. He did this either with black drawing material, or with a sharp pointed instrument that scratched through existing paint layers. In the latter case, the painter could have used a compass, but no evidence for this was found in the form of  a central point or indentation present in the ground or paint layers.

Detail through the microscope of The sower (Bührle Collection), showing black (probably charcoal) outline of the sun

Detail through the microscope of The sower (Bührle Collection), showing black (probably charcoal) outline of the sun

Detail of The sower (Kröller Müller Collection), showing the sun’s contour scratched into semi-dry paint with a sharp instrument.

Detail of The sower (Kröller Müller Museum), showing the sun’s contour scratched into semi-dry paint with a sharp instrument.

Mixing…

Painting the sun with yellow provided a naturally light and bright colour, yet Van Gogh varied his method to maximize its luminous effect. Regarding his first attempt of The Sower (Kröller Müller Museum), he wrote to his artist friend Emile Bernard explaining how he had achieved subtle differences in the yellow of the sky and the sun by carefully selecting the shades of chrome yellow used and mixing them with various quantities of white.

Recent portable X-ray fluorescence analysis of the painting conducted by colleagues at RCE, detected significantly  higher levels of zinc present in the sun compared to the rest of the sky. This agrees with the artist’s description of using the lightest, lemon  shade of chrome yellow 1 (that is zinc, rather than lead chromate yellow) mixed with a little white (probably zinc white) for the sun, compared to mixtures of chrome yellow 1 and 2 in the sky.

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…or layer upon layer

Besides mixing the two colours of yellow and white, Van Gogh could overlay them. He did this in his Summer evening near Arles,  a landscape that similarly depicts wheat fields against a setting sun and was painted in the month of June 1888.  In this case, he first painted a disc of white, apparently bright zinc white, as a luminous base for the yellow applied on top. Slight mingling of the two colours can be seen around the sun’s periphery, where the white underlayer peeps through in places.

Detail of the sun in Summer evening near Arles, 1888, Kunstmuseum Winterthur. A white underlayer is exposed upper left around the sun’s contour. Upper right, the contour is scratched through wet paint to reveal the white ground.

Detail of the sun in Summer evening near Arles, 1888, Kunstmuseum Winterthur. A white underlayer is exposed upper left around the sun’s contour. Upper right, the contour is scratched through wet paint to reveal the white ground.

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Accidental glitters?

An unusual effect was observed in the sun of the large Sower, now in Zürich. Examination of the paint surface with the stereo-microscope revealed tiny, translucent and brightly coloured lumps- apparently dried chips of paint-  both pressed and mixed into the yellow paint of the sun. At close viewing these orange, white, green, light blue, red and very dark  specks of colour have a jewel-like effect. Might they be deliberate additions by the painter to provide something of a sparkle?

Though this particular technique is unparalleled in works by Van Gogh that we have examined so far, we know that the artist might occasionally add own ingredients to his tube paints on the palette  in order to manipulate their properties. An example is his 1887 study of Two dried sunflowers (F 377), where technical investigation has revealed that he added large quantities of white barites powder to his colours as a cheap bulking agent, at the same time enhancing the brushing qualities of his paints.  In the case of the Bührle Sower though, we cannot rule out the possibility that the paint inclusions were accidental, perhaps from mixing his yellow colour on a dirty, dried out palette. But then again, Van Gogh was a master in exploiting the coincidental  for advantageous effect. So whether these glitters were accidental…?

Enlarged detail of The sower (Bührle Collection, Zürich), showing coloured particles embedded in the yellow sun

Enlarged detail of The sower (Bührle Collection, Zürich), showing coloured particles embedded in the yellow sun

Thanks to both Jan Jedlicka, Paintings Conservator at the Kunstmuseum in Winterthur and Luuk Struick van der Loeff, Chief Conservator at the Kröller-Müller Museum, for kindly facilitating examining of the paintings in their collections.

 

5 Responses to “A glittering sun”

  1. Donna says:

    We were at the Museum a few weeks ago and quite enjoyed two landscapes of the French Riviera. We cannot locate the names or see then in any searches. Can you identify them for us.
    Thank you.

    • Jolein van Kregten says:

      Dear Donna,

      First of all: please accept my apologies that it took us some time to answer. I fully understand your question: I myself see interesting works of art in almost every museum I go to, and I too want to know more about the ones that made an impression!
      I think you saw two landscapes made by Claude Monet (1840-1926), one is entitled View of Cape Martin, 1884, and the other La Corniche near Monaco, 1884. Both were made in the Riviera. In 1884 Monet made several paintings of the view of Cape Martin. He made series of the same motive in order to capture impressions of a landscape at various moments in time. He wrote:
      “For me, a landscape does not exist in its own right, since its appearance changes at every moment; but the surrounding atmosphere brings it to life – the light and the air which vary continually. For me, it is only the surrounding atmosphere which gives subjects their true value.”
      The painting of Cape Martin was made on a sunny summer’s day: the strong colour contrasts and deep blue shadows in the hills reflect the sunlight.

      Kind regards,

      Jolein van Kregten
      educator Van Gogh Museum

  2. Rebecca Drummond says:

    I find your research in how he painted to be fascinating. I am a painter and one technique I discovered for painting strawberries is to do a light pink base coat, then red, then add light green. The pink peaks through the red and green. I love Van Gogh’s paintings and though I do not try to copy his works, I tried some of his techniques by looking at the paintings. I like the idea of the sparkles.

    • Ella Hendriks says:

      Thank you for your enthusiastic comment. Just as Van Gogh learnt by looking closely at the work of other painters, it is nice to know that his painting techniques are a source of inspiration to you!

      Ella Hendriks
      conservator Van Gogh Museum

  3. Paula Soares says:

    What an enjoyable and didactic way to teach us about Van Gogh’s work. I am increasingly impressed with the museum. Van Gogh’s painting are inspiring and many are breath-taking, but your excellent work in presenting his work and his life, it’s really easy to learn and feel like we know a little bit more about Van Gogh every day. I am a huge fan of the museum.