An extraordinary dispute has broken out between the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and an academic who claims to have found more than 60 drawings made by the artist at the height of his powers.
Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov, a professor at the University of Toronto in Canada, and her publishers called a press conference on Tuesday to unveil a ledger account she says was used as a sketchbook by Vincent Van Gogh during his trip to the countryside of Provence in 1888. .
The ledger’s veracity is supported by respected Van Gogh scholar Ronald Pickvance, who called it “the most groundbreaking discovery in the entire history of Van Gogh’s work”.
But minutes after the press conference began, the Van Gogh Museum, the world’s leading authority on the artist, released a statement saying the drawings were categorically not by Van Gogh, but rather “imitations”.
Welsh-Ovcharov, who organized several important exhibitions of Van Gogh, stands by his assertions.
She says she was tipped off about the ledger in 2013 and recalls her first shock at seeing the first page – a drawing of cypress trees.
“You know they say you have an ‘oh my god’ moment… I had an OMG. I said, it’s not possible! I knew right away, I was a little confused but I knew… and it was scary.
The precise history of the ledger is unclear. His owner – who wishes to remain anonymous – was given to him by his mother more than 50 years ago and says she had no idea of his claimed links to Van Gogh. For her, it was “a nice sketchbook” that reminded her of her mother, Welsh-Ovcharov said.
In a testimony published in a new book on the drawings, the owner explains that her mother discovered it, accompanied by a handwritten diary, towards the end of the Second World War following the bombardment of Arles and its surroundings by allied planes.
She writes: “Following the destruction, my mother found a collection of archival documents in a separate room, including the large book of drawings and the small handwritten notebook that accompanied it. Knowing nothing about art and without artistic training, she had no idea of the importance of this discovery. She gave it to me on my 20th birthday and it was put away in a closet.
It would have stayed there, but a friend of the woman offered to show it to the art historian Franck Baille, who lived in the neighborhood. He had a hunch and called his friend, Welsh-Ovcharov.
She claims that Van Gogh received the register from Joseph and Marie Ginoux, the owners of the Café de la Gare in Arles, where the artist stayed from May to September 1888. Given the high quality of the paper, it is likely that he would have jumped at the chance to use it.
The claim is that Van Gogh used it while touring the Provençal countryside, drawing things that became some of his most recognizable subjects. There are previously unseen drawings of haystacks and sunflowers and a remarkable apparent self-portrait of a sunburned Van Gogh in his scruffy straw hat.
Welsh-Ovcharov has spent the past three years working “like a scientist” on the ledger and believes she has overwhelming evidence of its true nature. She said of her detractors: “You come out with such a revolutionary discovery that there are bound to be people who give their opinion. There will be different points of view and dialogues.
The statement from the Van Gogh Museum was unequivocal. He said he had been aware of the claims for some time and, based on review of 56 high-quality photographs, researchers and curators had agreed that the drawings could not be attributed to Van Gogh.
“Their opinion, based on years of research on Van Gogh’s drawings in the museum’s own collection and elsewhere – the Van Gogh Museum holds approximately 500 Van Gogh drawings and four of his sketchbooks – is that these drawings by album are imitations of Van Gogh’s drawings.
“Experts have examined its style, technique and iconography, and among their conclusions were that it contains distinctive topographical errors and that its author based it on faded drawings by Van Gogh.”
They would provide fascinating insights into Van Gogh’s summer of 1888, a largely happy time for an artist who suffered with so many demons. Welsh-Ovcharov said that Van Gogh arrived in Arles “very tired, very disillusioned, very ill after drinking a lot in Paris”.
Van Gogh worked hard during the summer, but by the end of 1888 his mental state had deteriorated. He fell out catastrophically with his friend Paul Gauguin and in December cut off his ear. In 1890 he committed suicide.
“In 1888, he came to Provence to seek respite. He came with the optimism that he would find something in the countryside that would renew and resuscitate him.