A Real Van Gogh? An Unsolved Art World Mystery

William Goetz, a very famous twentieth century Hollywood producer and film executive, was a well-known art collector. In 1948 he purchased a splendid work of art that was attributed to the Dutch post-impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh.
The painting, known as Study by Candlelight, was secured for $50,000 (approximately £32,601) and everything about it seemed legitimate. The art deal was highly regarded and the work itself was verified by a Van Gogh expert.
However, this mattered little at the time. It was controversial even then and so the seeds of doubt were sowed. Was this a real Van Gogh? No one could agree and thus the battle lines were draw. So controversial was it that it even had an impact on US foreign affairs. The trenches have remained.
It is an illuminating self-portrait. Van Gogh appears in a conventional pose, as befitted his style. His red hair however, looks cropped, but his beard is the usual length found in other self-portraits.
It’s almost like the old icon paintings, for behind him is the most heavenly of colours filling the entire canvas, giving him an almost saint-like demeanour. A mixture of warm yellows and vermillion encircle him reverentially and it glows with an irresistible effervescence that is intoxicating.
What seems odd though is the fact that it remains unfinished. His green jacket is only half painted, and included in the area yet to be adorned with verdant hues is an ink drawing of a Japanese kabuki gentleman, a fascinating symbol that remains peculiar. His signature appears below, as does the date 1888.
That date has a later historical significance, as a new exhibition at the Nevada Museum of Art reveals. The work was last seen in public 1988, 100 years after it was executed. It has remained within the Goetz family, adding to its mythology.
However, a quarter of a century on, the family has decided to find out more about its provenance. They have hired the respected art conservation scientist John Twilley to look into it, using the latest technology available to him. While the study into the work continues, it can be enjoyed and deliberated over at the museum.
It took the establishment’s director David Walker to convince the family to participate in a discourse about the painting’s fascinating story. As such, this exhibition is akin to a research lab, comprised as it is of documents, photographs, press materials and correspondence that pour over the ambiguity of Study by Candlelight.
“We knew David was someone we could trust,” Victoria Bleeden, one of William Goetz’s granddaughters told USA Today.
“It was David who suggested presenting all of the painting’s history, along with newly discovered scientific information, in an unbiased exhibition. My grandfather had gone to great lengths to prove the painting’s authenticity 60 years ago. I felt we owed it to his legacy to try and dispel any negative, unverified opinions.”
As such, the exhibition is one that encourages participation, for scholars and visitors alike to make their own mind’s up about whether it belongs to Van Gogh or not. Whatever your conclusions, what remains true is that the work of art is quite something. Perhaps what gives it a resplendent quality, outside of the beguiling colours, is its vagueness.
“This exhibition features a single painting whose authenticity has been debated for decades,” said Ann Wolfe, senior curator at the Nevada Museum of Art.
“We may never know for sure who painted Study by Candlelight, but whether one has an interest in Van Gogh, art history, Hollywood’s Golden Era, international politics, or issues of science and conservation, the story surrounding this cultural object is fascinating on many levels.”
A Real Van Gogh? An Unsolved Art World Mystery at the Nevada Museum of Art runs until August 25th 2013.
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