When Kansas City's Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art was conducting research on their collection, a small grasshopper was discovered which had been embedded for over a century in Vincent van Gogh's painting, Olive Trees. No sign of movement was found in the paint surrounding the remains of the insect, indicating that it was already dead when it landed on the wet painting.
"Van Gogh (Dutch, 1853-1890) worked outside in the elements, and we know that he, like other plein air artists, dealt with wind and dust, grass and trees, and flies and grasshoppers," noted Julian Zugazagoitia, Menefee D. and Mary Louise Blackwell CEO and Director of the Nelson-Atkins. "Olive Trees is a beloved painting at the Nelson-Atkins, and this scientific study only adds to our understanding of its richness," he said.
"Plein air painting," or painting on location outdoors, was an innovative concept at the time. In fact, many French Academicians frowned on the practice that was so vital to the French Impressionists.
In an 1885 letter to his brother, Theo, Vincent described some of the challenges, a concept that was innovative at the time: "But just go and sit outdoors, painting on the spot itself! Then all sorts of things like the following happen -- I must have picked up a good hundred flies and more off the 4 canvases that you'll be getting, not to mention dust and sand--when one carries them across the heath and through hedgerows for a few hours, the odd branch or two scrapes across them--"
The museum's press release notes, "Analysis by Mellon Science Advisor John Twilley confirms that van Gogh used a type of red pigment that gradually faded over time. These findings suggest that areas where van Gogh employed this red, either alone or mixed with other colors, appear slightly different today than when the painting was completed.
'Color relationships were central to van Gogh's practice,' said Aimee Marcereau DeGalan, Louis L. and Adelaide C. Ward Senior Curator of European Art. 'Since we now know that portions of the canvas where van Gogh employed this particular red pigment have faded, those color relationships are altered.'
The artist's letters often referred to his works by their dominant colors, which means the more recent changes in appearance can present uncertainty as to which painting van Gogh alluded to in his descriptions. With funding through the museum's Andrew W. Mellon Endowment for Scientific Research in Conservation, more research is being conducted to evaluate the impact of these color shifts. The research is expected to clarify the original appearance of Olive Trees and to offer a clearer understanding of its place within van Gogh's series of works on this theme."
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art also owns van Gogh's