Well-known and well-loved, the Van Gogh Museum’s Sunflowers (1889) by the Dutch master has recently undergone a ‘full body scan’ to better understand its condition. The scan determined that the iconic artwork is currently not fit to travel as it is ‘stable but vulnerable’ according to the museum’s director. Thus, the painting will stay put in its Amsterdam home for the foreseeable future, if not forever, to protect the historic work.
After the study, museum director Axel Rueger said ‘[the Van Gogh Museum has] decided that any stresses that the picture could be subjected to were it to travel, were [it] to be lent, that those might be too risky.’ ‘So therefore we decided that from now on we will not be able to lend the picture any more to other exhibitions to other museums — so it will always stay in Amsterdam.’
The painting, though, is not usually lent out nor does it travel often anyway. In fact, the painting has only been loaned out six times, the last of which was to the National Gallery in London when it was exhibited to the National Gallery’s version of the same subject matter. The London painting offers an alternative for van Gogh fans who can’t make it to Amsterdam to see the 1889 version, which was based on the National Gallery’s painting. There are also versions of the famous sunflower painting in Tokyo in Munich. A high-resolution image of the Amsterdam version, though, is also available here.
The tests performed on the 1889 painting were likened to a full body scan by Ella Hendriks, who is working on the restoration. Some of these tests are even those usually used on the human body. This included an examine commonly meant to examine retinas but when used on a painting allows for researchers to get a better understanding of the painting from a cross-section view. Tests have shed light on the varnishes and paints applied by van Gogh and later restorative efforts.
Information gained through the study has also resulted in limiting the amount of restoration that will now be able to be performed on the painting. If the painting were to be restored to its original state, a layer of varnish not original to the painting would need to be removed as would later previous restorative efforts. However, according to conservator Rene Boitelle ‘[t]hat varnish cannot be removed safely – at least not with the methods and materials available to us now.’ There are patches of beeswax that were added to the painting, though, that have turned a milky white colour distorting the aesthetic of the painting. Boitelle will be able to remove these patches but the earlier paints and varnishes used to touch up the painting are there to stay for now.
For Boitelle, the chance to work on Sunflowers is unique. ‘It’s quite exciting, obviously, but I try not to be too aware and too conscious of all the myths and the iconic value that the painting has,’ he said. ‘After all it’s still just a painting like so many we’ve treated here in this studio and I’ll treat it with the same dedication and seriousness and concentration as I would treat any other painting that is not iconic.’
Following the examinations of the painting, van Gogh’s Sunflowers will be back on exhibit at the Van Gogh Museum on February 22nd and in June, an exhibition concerning the restoration and research will follow.