Two sketches that were considered to be the first survivors made after Vincent van Gogh’s decision to become an artist are “probably” fakes, according to Yves Vasseur, author of a forthcoming book. He thinks they were misallocated. The house designs were discovered in 1958 in an attic in Cuesmes, in the Belgian Borinage, where Van Gogh served as a preacher among the miners. They were auctioned off and later donated to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
Vasseur’s book, Vincent van Gogh: questions of identity, will be published by Yale University Press next January. At the head of Mons Cultural Capital of Europe 2015, Vasseur was the driving force behind the city’s exhibition Van Gogh in the Borinage: the birth of an artist. He has a track record for Van Gogh’s discoveries, having recently shown that one of two accepted photographs of Vincent actually represents his younger brother Theo.
In the 2015 Belgian exhibition, the two drawings on loan from Washington played a key role, opening an exhibition dedicated to Van Gogh’s decision to become an artist. In September 1880, Vincent – then aged 27 – had written to Theo: “I’m going to take my pencil … I’m going to start drawing again, and from there, it seems to me, everything has changed for me, and now I am on my way. “
Following the Mons exhibition, Vasseur sets out to investigate the drawings he first saw (as opposed to the reproductions). They had been discovered in 1958 in a trunk in the attic of Samuel Delsaut’s (1900-78) house in Cuesmes, at 17 rue du Peuple.
Delsaut apparently describes himself in 1958 as the grandson of Charles Decrucq (1822-1884), who had owned Van Gogh from July to October 1880. Both drawings represent modest houses very similar to that of the Decrucq – the houses of the Zandmennik and Magros families. It was assumed that Van Gogh had given them to Decrucq, possibly in lieu of rent.
It was while living with Decrucq that Vincent made the most important decision of his life: to “pick up” his pencil. He was living in abject poverty at the time, sharing a small room with the children of his owner: “It’s very small like that, and there are two beds, the children’s one and mine.
Delsaut’s heart “skipped a beat” when he noticed that the two drawings he discovered in the attic were both initialed “VG”. He therefore contacts Theo’s son, Vincent Willem van Gogh, who authenticates and publishes the drawings. Vasseur’s investigations suggest that this was only after a cursory study and largely based on the Decrucq provenance. They were later published in the 1970 Rift Catalog raisonné of Van Gogh’s work, but it is not known how thoroughly they were examined and they were likely accepted based on the statement by Vincent Willem.
Delsaut and his son Carlo decided to sell the sketches. After this time, it is impossible to know what review the two major auction houses performed. Sotheby’s decided they weren’t genuine, but Christie’s was willing to continue. The designs were eventually sold for £ 4,200 each at Christie’s in 1970.
The two Cuesmes drawings were purchased from Christie’s by Armand Hammer, oil magnate, collector and art dealer. He donated it to the National Gallery of Art at the time of his death in 1990.
Vasseur has now approached the designs with a fresh outlook. The initials “VG” are surprising, because when the artist signs his work later, it is always “Vincent”. Stylistically, the designs are more finished than one might expect, compared to his other rare Borinage sketches, such as Miners in the snow (Kröller Müller Museum, Otterlo), dated September 1880. Vasseur was surprised to find that Delsaut apparently claimed in 1958 that he was the grandson of Van Gogh’s owner, when he was in fact a great-nephew.
The pair of drawings, discovered in the attic, were in a shirt bearing the name of Samuel Delsaut’s uncle, Elie Delsaut (1869-1949), who was an amateur artist. Vasseur thinks he is most likely the creator of the Washington designs.
A photograph of a lost drawing of the Decrucq house believed to be Elie survives. His style is certainly similar to the two attributed to Van Gogh.
The Zandmennik and Magros houses in the Washington drawings have long been demolished, but the highest part of the Decrucq house in Elijah’s sketch survives. Now known as the Van Gogh House, it serves as a museum and visitor center.
The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam is considered the main authenticator of the artist’s works, but it does not normally comment on objects from other collections. However, Marije Vellekoop, her head of collections and research, wrote an enthusiastic preface to Vasseur’s book, saying that “I fully subscribe” to his approach, which “does not take past” facts “for granted.
Sjraar van Heugten, former head of collections at the Van Gogh museum and curator of the Mons exhibition in 2015, has an open mind on the drawings of Washington. But in the introduction to Vasseur’s book, he says that the author’s findings “raise serious questions and cast doubt on their authenticity.”
A spokesperson for the National Gallery of Art was unable to provide a substantive comment. With the coronavirus problems, its curators and conservatives must wait until they can “do their own research and come together to study the drawings.”
The case of the Washington drawings demonstrates the importance of eliminating attribution errors. Art historians have long considered Cuesmes’ two sketches as proof of a certain talent in the work of Van Gogh in 1880. But if they are not by Van Gogh, then his other rough drawings of the Borinage suggest that his development as an artist was quite different.
Remarkably, a little less than a decade after his hesitant Borinage sketches, Van Gogh would use color to produce his expressive canvases. The artist we admire and love today has grown to success even faster than we thought.
Vasseur’s book is published in French and Flemish by Mercatorfonds next week and in English by Yale University Press January 26, 2021.
More Van Gogh news
• Van Gogh Flowers in a glass (Flowers in a Glass, 1890) sold at Sotheby’s, New York on October 28 for $ 16.2 million, against an estimate of $ 14 to $ 18 million.
Martin bailey is a leading Van Gogh scholar and investigative journalist for The arts journal. Bailey has organized exhibitions on Van Gogh at the Barbican Art Gallery and at Compton Verney / National Gallery of Scotland. He was co-curator of Tate Britain’s The EY exhibition: Van Gogh and Great Britain (March 27-August 11, 2019). He has written several best-selling books, including Sunflowers Are Mine: The Story of Van Gogh’s Masterpiece (Frances Lincoln 2013, available in UK and U.S), Studio from the South: Van Gogh in Provence (Frances Lincoln 2016, available in UK and U.S) and Starry night: Van Gogh at the asylum (White Lion Publishing 2018, available in UK and U.S). His latest book is Living with Vincent van Gogh: the houses and landscapes that shaped the artist (White Lion Publishing 2019, available in UK and U.S).
• To contact Martin Bailey, please email: [email protected]
For more on the Martin’s Adventures with Van Gogh blog, click here.