Following an 18-year unplanned exile, two of Van Gogh’s prized paintings are once again adorning the walls of the Van Gogh Museum on Museumplein 6, Amsterdam. The works were stolen from the museum in 2002, recovered in Italy in 2016 and returned to the Dutch capital where they have spent the past two years in the conservation studio being examined and restored.
Both works required conservation treatment after the theft, with View of the Sea at Scheveningen missing a considerable piece of paint from its bottom left-hand corner. Conservators filled the lacuna using a 3D-printed mould, which was developed based on scans and research to replicate the relief of the original brushstrokes. The conservator subsequently retouched this filling.
The other painting, Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen, was hardly damaged, however, the painting was covered with a non-original glossy varnish layer that had yellowed over time. Investigation showed that this layer could be removed, which has led to the colours, particularly the sky, being much brighter and cooler.
During examination of the painting, the conservator also discovered another varnish layer (protein based, probably an egg white varnish) that was applied by Van Gogh himself. This is the first time that such a layer has been found in the artist’s early work. New frames have also been fitted to both paintings as the old frames had been removed by the thieves.
“The conservators have done a brilliant job and the paintings will now go back on permanent display in their full glory, for everyone to see,” said Axel Rüger, outgoing Director of the Van Gogh Museum. “Having the opportunity to see this happen before the end of my Van Gogh Museum career is a dream come true.”
Initially the paintings will be displayed alongside information about the conservation treatment and then in mid-September, the works will return to their ‘old’ place in the presentation of the collection, alongside Van Gogh’s other early paintings.
Conservation treatment of View of the Sea at Scheveningen
View of the Sea at Scheveningen (1882) is one of only two seascapes that Van Gogh painted in the Netherlands, and one of his first works in oil paint. View of the Sea has suffered a great deal over the years. Van Gogh painted it on paper, which was later fixed to panel during a conservation treatment. This panel was removed during a subsequent conservation treatment, and the work was attached to a canvas.
When the work was stolen from the museum, a piece of the painted paper measuring approximately 7 x 2 cm was torn from the bottom left-hand corner. In order to fill this lacuna, the scanning technique optical coherence tomography (OCT) was used to measure the thickness of the surrounding paint and the contours of the missing corner (this work was conducted by Northwestern University, Chicago).
By combining this information with a raking light photograph from before the theft, the scientists were able to determine the relief, and therefore the surface. This was subsequently shaped in a 3D-printed mould. The filling from the mould was then attached to the painting
by the conservator – the relief of the filling perfectly matched the brushstrokes of the original paint. Finally, the filling was retouched by hand, after an old photograph of the painting (in which the bottom left-hand corner is still intact).
A non-original varnish layer was also removed and old overpaint on the painting was retouched to make it visually less disturbing. This overpaint had discoloured and due to aging, had become insoluble. The remains of a signature ‘Vincent’ were discovered during the conservation treatment, but it is most likely that this was applied by someone else other than Van Gogh.
Conservation treatment of Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen
Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen was hardly damaged when it was stolen. Examination did reveal that the painting had multiple varnish layers; the top two of them consisting of a synthetic resin, which were applied during a conservation treatment in 1961.
Extensive research revealed that this varnish – that was glossy and yellowed with age – could be removed safely without affecting the underlying original paint layers. Now that these varnish layers have been removed the original colours as intended by the artist can be appreciated once again.
During this treatment, an original varnish was also discovered. This protein-based layer, probably egg white, was applied by Van Gogh himself sometime between 1884 when he first worked on the painting, and the autumn of 1885, when he returned to it. The varnish was namely found on the surface of the paint from the first painting session, and under the overpaint added by the artist later.
Van Gogh did not remove this so-called ‘saturating varnish’, which means it still covers almost the entire surface. When he applied the protein-based layer, the paint underneath was not yet completely dry. The paint and varnish have therefore formed a close bond. Due to this, and to the fact that Van Gogh did not remove the varnish on the painting, the conservators decided to leave this original layer intact.
Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen is the only early painting in the Van Gogh Museum collection with a protein-based varnish layer that was definitely applied by Van Gogh. In a few letters to his brother Theo from the period, he mentions applying a layer of egg white to paintings to ‘saturate’ the colours.