THE BLOG
07/10/2013 01:39 pm ET Updated Sep 09, 2013

Hacking van Gogh: Is the Master's 'Fingerprint' Missing From a MET Painting?

After enduring the Great Recession, the public has shown a backlash against the $25 admission fee for the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, which charges it as a "donation."

On Sunday July 7, the New York Post wrote about a former Met supervisor, who claimed the museum has an "entry-fee bounty system" to wring money out of visitors. That has led to a class-action lawsuit asserting the Met violated its 1878 lease with the City of New York. The Met denies the allegations.

What if visitors are paying the Met entry fee, but they're not getting what's advertised? Such could be the case with a questionable work attributed to Vincent van Gogh. If it's a forgery, maybe people should think twice about making the donation to the Met for seeing only part of the master's true body of work.

The painting in question is a Wheat Field with Cypresses. There are three of them. That wasn't unusual for Vincent, who painted more than a dozen versions of Sunflowers.

A Wheatfield, with Cypresses hangs in the National Gallery of Art in London; while the claimed pendant, in New York in the Met's Annenberg Collection. Both paintings claim provenance -- a chain-of-custody -- from the original artist to heirs down to collectors, art dealers, and museums showing a clear audit trail of who owned the art when.

Both landscapes are dated to 1889, have identical cloud formations, and were painted from the same position in the field. Just one problem: The two paintings were "painted" three months apart. How can that be?

Vincent might have been institutionalized the last year of his life, but his stay at the Saint-Rémy asylum was one of the most productive periods as an artist. Thus, he never would have painted the same painting twice with the same sky a season apart. The color of the wheat should have been seasonally adjusted, but they are too close, while the brushwork on the Met painting borders on muddy.

As a part of the $1 billion "extended" gift from the Annenberg Foundation in 1993 to the Met, Wheat Field with Cypresses was mentioned in Vincent's Letter #784 (7-2-1889) to his brother Theo, an art dealer in Paris, reading:

"I have a canvas of cypresses with a few ears of wheat, poppies, a blue sky, which is like a multicolored Scottish plaid. This one, which is impasted like Monticelli's, and the wheatfield with the sun that represents extreme heat, also thickly impasted..."

Except the painting in the passage refers to a Green Wheat Field with Cypress. The emerald green field with "poppies" and the blue "Scottish plaid sky" are easily on display at the Národni Gallery, Prague. They're not evident in the Met painting.

How can those two wheat field paintings -- one green, the other harvest brown of autumn -- occupy the same letter of July 2, 1889?

In the view of Susan Alyson Stein, the Curator of European Paintings at the Met, she said, "Call it artistic license. One field painted as is, the other in a color of his choosing."

Doubtful and amusing. Vincent painted nature directly. He did not cheerfully anticipate a change of seasons while locked up in an asylum. Neither had he experienced full summer or autumn in Saint-Rémy. Indeed, Vincent wrote of his sincere doubts about any future in Lfetter #801.

That generic answer defies logic. The passage refers to one painting, not two. In the Met version the sky is white and grey from a flotilla of clouds -- not "blue" as the letter attests.

Van Gogh at the Saint-Rémy Asylum
Today, a car can drive from Paris in north France to Saint-Rémy in the south in six hours. Confined to the asylum, when Vincent finished his oil paintings, and after they dried, he took the canvases off the stretchers, rolled them up, and sent them to his brother in a crate on a much slower train to Paris. Theo stored them under Vincent's bed in the same rolled up manner.

In the September Letter #800 (9-6-1889), Vincent wrote to Theo: "... The reaper, the bedroom, the olive trees, wheatfield and cypress, that will make four even."

Nowhere in the letter did Vincent write A Wheatfield, with Cypresses was a copy of an earlier version. "Four even" states four new paintings; nothing else can be interpreted from that straightforward line.

It's the condition of the art, not only provenance, that becomes a factor in determining whether a painting is authentic or not. So does the artist's "fingerprint," as Louis van Tilborgh, a senior researcher at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and co-author of three books on Vincent's art, told me in a phone interview.

"An artist's fingerprint includes colors and pigments, brushstrokes, style, all related to the research from the era concerning provenance that draws a conclusion, either left or right. It's the total sum... the sum of the parts that makeup the artist's fingerprint," van Tilborgh explained.

For van Gogh, he had many elements that formed his fingerprint or DNA, including pointillism, which gave the feeling of movement of wheat by a breeze on the ground in one direction and a jet-stream blowing clouds in the other direction. That is on display in the U.K. National Gallery painting, but is absent from the Met version. Why?

Ronald Pickvance, a former Met curator held an exhibit at the Met on: "Van Gogh in Saint-Rémy and Auvers" (1986-87). In a New York Times article (1-4-87), Art View; the Faces that Haunt van Gogh's Landscapes, Pickvance discussed the secondary images that van Gogh embedded in his landscape paintings, some in cypresses, others in the sky.

The Times author Michael Brenson wrote:

"At Saint-Rémy, and then, to a lesser degree in the north French village of Auvers, where he spent the last three months of his life, van Gogh's powers of discernment and organization are unmistakable."

Those words endorse what Louis van Tilborgh said about an artist's fingerprint. It also shows the craftsmanship of the artist in the U.K. Wheatfield, in which the haunted face is shown clear at the top of a cloud in the upper left corner, while the same image in the Met painting is smudged. Neither at all subtle, nor done with a confident brushstroke of a master whose "powers of discernment and organization are unmistakable."

The organization refers to van Gogh's composition choreographed with rhythmic brushwork flirting with pointillism to imply movement of air. In Ms. Stein's view, van Gogh's use of pointillism is not shown in either Wheat Field painting.

Moving in After an Artist Exits
Art forgers start their dark craft after an artist dies. Vincent died at 37, while his peer Claude Monet died at 86 years old in 1926. That's why few have heard of a forged Monet, while rumors abound about fake van Goghs over the years. Add the death of Theo -- his gatekeeper -- seven months later, and the Saint-Rémy paintings languished for a decade stored at his sister-in-law's apartment in Paris.

Ms. Stein agreed that the van Gogh paintings were rolled up for storage. But oddly enough for a curator at a major museum, she asked, "What does 'impacted impasto' mean?"

It's clear that "impacted impasto" means the Saint-Rémy paintings' impasto -- van Gogh's unique trait -- had been subsequently compacted by the physical confinement of rolled up storage. Then add the impact of locked in heat, then cold, and over time the works were subjected to more atmospheric stress while they dried out.

All paintings age. Pigments mixed in oil dry out and thin as mineral spirits evaporate, leaving a harder remnant behind. Take the abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock, who died in 1956. Last year, a New York gallery was closed for having sold new acrylic "Pollocks."

"The problem with copying artists from other eras is the chemical time bomb," Robert Alexander Boyle told me in a sit down interview. "Paints, chemicals, and pigments evolve over time. Those chemical varying signatures will show up in condition reports."

Today, technology allows people to access the van Gogh letters database, do a keyword search, a place search, a period search. It also empowers people to use Google Art to view high definition photos of a painting to see detailed texture, impasto, aging, and pigments blown up, super close in their living room.

Open Source Condition Reports
Add the condition of paintings "rolled up, stored in crates that were sent to Theo in Paris," Louis van Tilborgh noted, and a certain type of stress cracking and impacted impasto in the paintings can be detected. "Theo stored his brother's paintings rolled up under the bed, as that was the way he stored them." He emphasized, "It wasn't just to send them by train."

How the questionable van Gogh made it into the halls of the Met was a conversation I struck up with Boyle. After we discussed the Pollock forgeries, I asked: "Has anyone forged a van Gogh?"

"Twenty years ago I was told by an art world elder of this unique situation regarding the condition of van Gogh's paintings and to advise clients to steer clear of the ones without impacted impasto," he said. Mr. Boyle is an art specialist, who has worked at American museums and was a speaker on PBS about 19th century landscape paintings. (Disclosure: Mr. Boyle worked for the Met in 1985-86 as an assistant director on their PBS film, American Paradise, the World of Hudson River School).

"How the van Gogh paintings at Saint-Rémy age over time depends on how they were stored, rolled up in crates. You see features such as impacted impasto, a high layer of paint. It depends on the pictures, how thick the paint was, humidity, warmth. We saw in Vincent's letters paintings needed roughly one month to dry before they were good enough to send," van Tilborgh said.

"From condition reports I've read on van Gogh's Saint-Rémy work, paint dried while rolled up. But the longer drying times in such circumstances enhances the impacted impasto affect to all van Goghs and to what Anthony Reeve, of the National Gallery of Art in London, described in his precise condition report regarding the U.K. example," Mr. Boyle said.

In the Met's Annenberg Catalogue on Wheat Field, Footnote #14 calls the National Gallery condition report "the definitive study" on the paintings. A paragraph later in the footnote, states: "Some myths die hard" regarding the controversy surrounding the two Wheat Field paintings being identical with the same sky.

The difference between the three leading van Gogh collections in Europe -- the U.K. National Gallery, the Van Gogh Museum, and the Kröller-Müller Museum -- the museums all display the same "open source" European model. They make their condition reports available online, they continuously test new technologies on van Gogh paintings, caring more about vetting the truth on authenticity than the push back the Met gave my request to view the condition reports on three van Gogh paintings.

From Saint-Rémy to Schuffenecker
In 1900, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger -- widow of Theo -- reached out to a minor French artist named Emile Schuffenecker, whose brother Amedée was an art dealer. Jo worked with Emile on restoring and selling many of Vincent's Saint-Rémy paintings. The restoration of the artwork gave Emile the means and opportunity to make copies of any painting he was restoring. It also gave him the motive: Money.

Emile's name shows up in the Met's provenance of Wheat Field, an origin report that includes Dieter Bührle, a Swiss arms dealer for the Nazis and African states torn by civil conflict in the 1960s. So did Emile copy the questionable painting at the Met?

"There's no proof that Schuffenecker forged any van Gogh painting," Mr. van Tilborgh said.

Perhaps. But beyond the clouds and landscape being identical in both paintings, painted months apart, the one in the Annenberg Collection has additional red flags.

First, "The dried yellow colors of the fields in the Met painting are not from June," Boyle stated. "Late spring rains (which Vincent alluded to in a June 1 Letter #774) would endow June with emerald green. Vincent called them malachite green -- copper acetoarsenite. Copper is the unstable element that shows the most distress in the U.K. example, yet despite Vincent's preferences for it, there's no evidence of that color in the Met example claiming to be from June. The rainy greens would have produced more of the chemical in the original, not less."

Second, the Wheat Field with Cypresses appears to be too pristine a chemical state to be older than A Wheatfield, with Cypresses, which was rolled, dried, and stored in the same method as the other paintings from that summer. None of the pert impasto in the painting evinces symptoms from being confined with the works rolled up with impacted storage.

Third, the Met hangs their hat on authenticity -- the Schuffenecker provenance -- as solid proof. In reaching out to Johannes van der Wolk, the former curator at the Kröller-Müller Museum (KMM), which has one of the most extensive van Gogh collections in the world, he once said that based on catalogues, it's estimated the number of possible (van Gogh) fakes to be as high as 100.

That controversial remark possibly cost van der Wolk his job back in 2000, and it may be why KMM turned down requests for an interview on van Gogh's art, since it might stir up a past controversy.

The Met Wheat Field appears to be the work of a hack, not a master. Is that one reason why the Met have denied access to the condition reports of the paintings?

In the National Gallery Technical Bulletin, Vol. 11, 1987, the museum's conservator Anthony Reeve wrote, "In various areas of thick impasto in A Cornfield (sic), with Cypresses... there are impressed marks of other canvases. These may have happened when the pictures were rolled for sending to their various destinations; and the supposition is strengthened by the direction of the vertical cracking visible in the sky painting of the Cornfield (sic)."

In a request to the Met for condition reports on a Wheat Field with Cypresses and two other van Gogh paintings from Saint-Rémy, Susan Stein said, "You can send specific questions about the condition reports on the paintings. There's no guarantee the conservators at the Met will give you access to them." Nor would she identify who might be able to answer the questions or furnish a condition report when I asked for a name.

Why be exclusive? Why act like the NSA when the Met is a public institution? What are they hiding? Stein's response to the last question: "We are hiding nothing." Okay, then make the condition reports available.

The Met mission statement reads:

The mission of The Metropolitan Museum of Art is to collect, preserve, study, exhibit, and stimulate appreciation for and advance knowledge of works of art that collectively represent the broadest spectrum of human achievement at the highest level of quality, all in the service of the public and in accordance with the highest professional standards.

The public has the right to know whether they are seeing a real painting from van Gogh or an inferior copy, so people can ascend to "advance knowledge of works of art."

Ms. Stein recommended to me: "You should go to the van Gogh conservators in Europe and learn the intricacies of his painting style."

I concur. That's what I did in writing this article: To bring attention to the experts a questionable van Gogh painting, sans his artistic fingerprint. Museums will not comment on a painting that's not in their collection, however. Perhaps they should rethink that policy.

Finally, the Met is going against the spirit of its mission -- "... all in the service of the public and in accordance with the highest professional standards." -- by not making public condition reports that, when lined up side-by-side with the other van Gogh paintings, will show either the same wear and tear, aging, and condition, or will not.

This author will publish again when the Met makes those condition reports available for review. Some local art restorers suspect the chemicals contained in the Met painting differ greatly from the U.K. report, thus the evasiveness of the Met's answers to the questions posed.

Until they comply, I recommend to the people visiting the Met to make a "donation" lower than the Met's suggested entry fee.