A genuine van Gogh

After nearly 50 years of uncertainty, researchers have now confirmed that the National Museum's painting "Self-Portrait" (1889) by Vincent van Gogh, is genuine.

van Goghs self portrait held up by a person

Text by Curator Vibeke Waallann Hansen

Vincent van Gogh painted many self-portraits, and one of these is in the National Museum's collection. The painting was purchased by the National Gallery's first director Jens Thiis in Paris in 1910, making it the first self-portrait of van Gogh to enter a national art collection.

In the 1970s the authenticity of the artwork was questioned, and the doubt has remained ever since – until now. One of the reasons for the uncertainty was that the picture's provenance was unclear. In addition, the painting appears unfinished, and its toned-down colours and the artist's muted expression distinguish it from van Gogh's other self-portraits.

Painting, self-portrait by Vincent van Gogh
Vincent van Gogh, "Self-Portrait", 1889
Photo: Nasjonalmuseet / Anne Hansteen

The experts’ conclusion

However, now a team of experts at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has concluded that the self-portrait was painted by van Gogh in 1889. The researchers’ certainty is based on several factors, and the work underlying their conclusion is published in the renowned art publication Burlington Magazine.

What is the evidence?

It is research on owner history, materials and style that now confirms that the picture was painted by van Gogh. The new findings show that this self-portrait was the first work he painted after a long period of illness in the summer of 1889. At the time he was a patient at an institution for the mentally ill at Saint-Rémy in Provence.

Provenance

The National Museum's own research on the painting's owner history from 2004 has now been confirmed by the researchers at the Van Gogh Museum. One is now certain that the first owners of the painting were a married couple with the name of Ginoux. The couple received the picture as payment for the artist's stay in their guest house in Arles. There are documents showing that the Ginouxes sold the painting to an art dealer in Paris in February 1896. From then until the National Gallery purchased the painting in July 1910, it passed through the hands of various art dealers.

Canvas and colour samples

Technical studies have shown that the picture is painted on a type of canvas that is typical of several of the works Van Gogh produced in the same period. The colour palette is also the same, and pigment tests have shown that the type of paint used matches that of several other paintings produced during this period.

Composition and style

The composition of the painting also coincides with two self-portraits that were painted at about the same time:

The dimensions of the head are almost exactly the same in all three paintings, and the artist takes the same pose. The eyes are green, matching the artist's real eye colour. In addition, the brush strokes in the background of the three portraits have a relatively similar structure.

Letters as source

Van Gogh wrote many letters throughout his life, and these have been important sources in the research. In a letter dated 20 September 1889, he refers to a picture as "an attempt from when I was ill". In all likelihood, it is the National Museum's self-portrait he had in mind. The unfinished nature of the painting, and the sad and dejected expression he has depicted, reinforce the assumption that it was painted during his period of illness.

The researchers at the Van Gogh Museum have done a very thorough job of investigating the work. A study of provenance and technical examinations help lay a solid foundation for the conclusion that the work was painted by van Gogh. Now the National Museum finally has a van Gogh again

Museum curator Mai Britt Guleng.

Central place in the new National Museum

The painting is currently on loan to the Van Gogh Museum and their exhibition "In the Picture" which opens on 21 February. Here it will be exhibited together with self-portraits of masters such as Edvard Munch, Charley Toorop, Gustave Courbet, Paul Cézanne and Helene Schjerfbeck. The painting will have a central place in the new collection exhibition when the new National Museum at City Hall Square in Oslo opens in the spring of 2021.

Conservator checking the painting with a flashlight
The painting is routinely checked by the conservator before being lent to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
Photo: Nasjonalmuseet / Annar Bjørgli

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