Vincent van Gogh’s masterpieces have been gazed at by millions. It’s no exaggeration to say that he is one of the most beloved artists of all time, with his paintings – or their reproductions – gracing everything from prestigious art galleries to everyday coffee mugs. So you’d probably think that by now we’ve uncovered all of the surprises hidden in his art; amazingly, though, it turns out that we’re still finding them.
Vincent Willem van Gogh was born to Protestant minister Theodorus van Gogh and his wife Anna Carbentus on March 30, 1853. Even as a child growing up in the Dutch village of Zundert, the future artist felt a connection with nature. And together with his parents and five siblings, he would often take family walks through the countryside where they lived.
As for his education, although young Vincent was a good student, he was never destined for an academic life. He left school by the age of 15 and at 16 began working as a trainee at the art dealers Goupil & Cie. In 1873 he was then transferred to the company’s London branch, while his younger brother Theo went to work for the firm in Brussels.
Being an art dealer wasn’t for Van Gogh either, though. For a while he became a missionary in Belgium, but despite his dedication, he wasn’t kept on and ended up moving back in with his mother and father. Meanwhile, Van Gogh sent his brother Theo many letters and sketches, and it was Theo who encouraged him to become an artist.
Financially supported by Theo, Van Gogh then took up art with the same passion he’d had for religion. He took inspiration both from the world around him and from the lives of local workers. Then later, he moved to Paris, where he started developing his own unique style and formed friendships with other artists, including Paul Gauguin.
Unfortunately, though, while his art progressed, Van Gogh’s mental health was often an issue. Indeed, in one well-known incident, the artist sliced off a portion of his own ear after an argument with Gauguin. Van Gogh was therefore admitted to various mental hospitals. However, he was never fully cured – and on July 27, 1890, in the throes of depression, he put a bullet in his own abdomen. He died two days later.
What’s more, although he had some critical success, Van Gogh never achieved fame or fortune while he was alive. In fact, he sold just one of his works, The Red Vineyard, in his lifetime. It was only after his death that he was truly appreciated – particularly during the 20th century, when he became renowned for both his artistic style and his tragic life.
When Van Gogh died, he left a collection of more than 850 paintings and nearly 1,300 watercolors, drawings and sketches. These passed first to his brother Theo and then, when Theo died 18 months later, to the art dealer’s widow, Jo van Gogh-Bogne. It was she who first really began to popularize Van Gogh’s art, partly by lending the work to various museums.
Today, with all of the attention given to Van Gogh’s paintings, you would probably think that every inch of them had been examined for secrets long ago. Yet it turns out that there are some things only modern technology can reveal. A fascinating case in point is pictured here. It’s a dead insect embedded in the painting Olive Trees, and it was discovered using a microscope.
The painting is a prize exhibit at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. “Looking at the painting with the microscope… I came across the teeny-tiny body of a grasshopper submerged in the paint,” conservator Mary Schafer told local station Fox4KC in late 2017. “It occurred in the wet paint back in 1889.”
Based on the find, researchers hoped that the grasshopper in the paint would prove to be more than a novelty. What’s more, they wondered whether the insect might be used to more accurately pinpoint when the painting was created. So, Michael Engel, a paleo-entomologist and senior curator at the University of Kansas, took a look at the insect to see what he could find out.
Through his examination, Engel found that not only were the abdomen and thorax of the grasshopper missing, but that it was also most likely long dead when it got trapped in the paint. And, sadly, this meant that it could not be used to date the painting after all. Still, it was quite the discovery – and an intriguing window into the past.
Painting outdoors, away from the confines of the studio, was popular during the 19th century. For one thing, the process was believed to create more authentic representations of nature. Artists also had at their disposal smaller, transportable easels, while paint was available in easy-to-carry tubes. Of course, though, painting outdoors came with its own challenges – insect pests being one of them.
Indeed, we know that Van Gogh was troubled by insects and other environmental factors while he worked outside. “I must have picked up a few hundred flies and more off the four canvases that you’ll be getting,” he wrote to his brother Theo in 1885. “Not to mention dust and sand.”
Back in the present day, Schafer, meanwhile, shared her own thoughts on the subject. “We can connect it to Van Gogh painting outside, so we think of him battling the elements, dealing with the wind, the bugs, and then he’s got this wet canvas that he’s got to traipse back to his studio through the fields,” she told Fox4KC about the discovery. “What’s fun is we can come up with all these scenarios for how the insect landed in the paint.”
And this is not the first time that one of Van Gogh’s paintings has thrown up something unexpected, either. In 2004, for example, scientists observing gas and dust swirling around a distant star found themselves recalling Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Other experts were thus amazed that the artist had managed to capture the whirling flows of the universe so accurately without the aid of a telescope.
Then in 2008 light was shed on another Van Gogh mystery. It was already accepted that his 1887 piece Patch of Grass had something painted beneath its surface. The painting was therefore X-rayed using a new technique, and sure enough, the portrait of a woman emerged. That said, remarkable as it may sound, experts weren’t entirely surprised, as Van Gogh is known to have regularly painted over his own compositions.
Then there’s the painting Still Life with Meadow Flowers and Roses, which had long been in doubt as a genuine Van Gogh. When the artwork was X-rayed in 1998, though, scientists found something beneath the top layer of paint. It was another image – this one depicting a pair of men wrestling with each other. And later, in 2012, a more advanced X-ray helped researchers conclude that both scenes were, after all, authentic Van Goghs.
Van Gogh’s artworks in fact continue to reveal new discoveries all the time. Currently, they are being used by scientists to find out how different pigments degrade. And the artist’s oeuvre is especially useful for this research, because not only did he complete a large body of work – almost 1,000 paintings – but he also shared details about his methods in many letters to those with whom he was close.
Meanwhile, the grasshopper in Olive Trees continues to draw visitors to the Nelson-Atkins Museum, where they try to spot the insect themselves. The observers have no chance of actually finding the intruder, mind you, as it can’t be seen without a magnifier. Still, the curators are surely happy that more people are coming to see the art on display – whatever the reason.