06 Sep 2020


Early 20th century postcard with the right side colourised by computer
Early 20th century postcard with the right side colourised by computer

For the past many months, French newspapers, TV shows and radio broadcasts have been taken over by debates on the Covid-19 pandemic. So, it is a relief these days to read breathtaking details concerning a latest discovery of Vincent van Gogh’s works.

The artist had spent the final days of his life in Auvers-sur-Oise, a charming little hilly town not far from Paris. On July 27, 1890, perturbed by a flock of crows restlessly flying overhead, landing down and cawing wildly while he was trying to illustrate a field full of wheat crops, van Gogh succumbed and nervously painted the crows as part of the landscape, as if this were what they were noisily demanding. He then drew out his pistol and shot himself in the chest, dying two days later at the age of 37. (By the way this episode, if you happen to be a movie fan, was magnificently interpreted by Kirk Douglas as Vincent van Gogh in the 1956 movie Lust for Life, directed by Vincente Minnelli.)

The man behind an unexpected discovery that is causing turmoil in the art world is Wouter Van der Veen, a senior official at the Van Gogh Institute in Auvers-sur-Oise. He says he had always believed, like everyone else, that ‘Wheatfield With Crows’ was van Gogh’s last work, but he could not help being fascinated by ‘Tree Roots’, an unfinished, totally neglected and practically incomprehensible painting.

He continues: “Recently one day, looking at an early 20th century postcard with a black-and-white photograph on its back showing a man going through a lane (today called rue Dubigny) in Auvers-sur-Oise with a bicycle by his side, I was struck by the resemblance of the trees on the hilly sector at right with those in van Gogh’s enigmatic creation.”

When, using modern computer techniques, the black-and-white photograph’s right side was given the same colour scheme as in ‘Tree Roots’, there remained little doubt as to where the genius’ inspiration had come from.

The discovery of a black-and-white postcard sheds new light on what might have been Vincent van Gogh’s last painting

Van der Veen hastily organised a ceremony on July 27 this year to mark the area as a historical site. Among the guests were the Director of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam but also Willem van Gogh, the great grandson of Theo van Gogh, the painter’s brother. The spot, unmistakably resembling the painting and very close to the Ravoux Guest House, where van Gogh had spent the final days of his life, is already attracting large crowds of art fans.

Vincent van Gogh’s unfinished ‘Tree Roots’
Vincent van Gogh’s unfinished ‘Tree Roots’

Vincent and Theo van Gogh were buried side by side in this town and their graves are practically always covered by flower bouquets laid down by visitors.

Other theories are rapidly springing up. Some art critics maintain ‘Tree Roots’ was van Gogh’s initiation of the modern, abstract art technique, later forwarded by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and many others.

As far as Wouter Van Der Veen is concerned, the painting is an absolute confirmation of the theme of life and death that was van Gogh’s obsession in his final days.

“Even today, 130 years after it was created, if you look attentively at the craggy spot lit by an afternoon sun, you can almost feel van Gogh’s abhorrence with going on living.”

Another theory concerning van Gogh’s death that had gone around for years is that he was accidentally shot by a group of hunters. The hypothesis finally came to an end in 1960 when a rusted pistol was found buried exactly at the spot where he had worked on ‘Wheatfield With Crows’. The weapon was later sold in Paris in an auction house for more than 160,000 euros.

Loire Valley journalist and art critic Jean Lauvergeat concludes: “It is of no importance whether ‘Tree Roots’ was van Gogh’s last work or not. Just accept it as his goodbye letter, written in flamingly brilliant colours.”

The writer is an art critic based in Paris.

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 6th, 2020