Experts say that Vincent Willem van Gogh had a tendency to leave mysteries in his paintings. One such mystery has recently been unfolded by paintings conservator Mary Schafer. Perhaps, the Dutch post-Impressionist painter, himself, failed to find it while creating the masterpiece – Olive Trees – in 1889 and the mystery has been ‘stuck’ in the painting for 128 years.
What’s the mystery?
In fact, Van Gogh made five pictures of olive orchards in November 1889 and Mary found the mystery in one of the paintings of that series. Mary and other curators at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City were scanning those paintings as a part of their research for a catalogue of its French painting collection. She found that ‘something’ was there in the work’s lower foreground. At first, Mary thought that the object could be a leaf as it was the picture of a tree.
In an interview to ‘Live Science’ magazine, Mary said: “Looking at the painting with the microscope … I came across the teeny-tiny body of a grasshopper submerged in the paint, so it occurred in the wet paint back in 1889.” She stressed: “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.” Mary added: “What’s fun is we can come up with all these scenarios for how the insect landed in the paint.” Interestingly, the insect’s thorax and abdomen were missing.
But, how the insect find its place in the painting?
For curators, it is surprising that the painter failed to realise that a grasshopper got stuck in the canvas. Perhaps, the insect was dead already as there was no sign of movement in the surrounding paint.
In an 1885 letter to his brother Theo, Van Gogh writes of painting outdoors. “I must have picked up a few hundred flies and more off the 4 canvases that you’ll be getting, not to mention dust and sand … when one carries them across the heath and through hedgerows for a few hours, the odd branch or two scrapes across them,” he further writes.
Meanwhile, senior curator and Professor at the University of Kansas Michael Engel said that the grasshopper would help curators identify which season Van Gogh painted Olive Trees.