Dutch Post-Impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) created many masterpieces between the age of 27, when he first started painting, and 37, when he died. His numerous treasures include "Sunflowers" and "The Starry Night". He created approximately 2,000 works of art in the 10 years until his death.
Among his masterpieces was the watercolor painting Meadow, In the Background New Church. It had been missing since the 1950s and was discovered in Japan after 70 years.
Dr. Kaori Taguchi, from Tokai University, who works on the conservation and restoration of artworks, organized an investigation on Van Gogh’s watercolor painting. HORIBA joined the investigation and we interviewed her about this work from a scientific and conservation point of view, using micro-X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (XRF).
This is a watercolor painting made by Van Gogh when he was in his twenties. The painting depicts a country meadow in the suburb area of Hague, the Netherlands.
“Although Van Gogh is famous his oil paintings, he was seeking to expand the variety of his expression at the time and he was interested in watercolor paintings, as well. He was a studious student, so he tried learning drawing techniques from textbooks and did many trials on drawing paper,” Taguchi said.
In this painting, you can see a waterfront and lush vegetation in the foreground, people and cows standing in a rolling pasture, houses and churches drawn spatially, and sky in the top rear ground of the painting.
“This is one of the popular drawing approaches by Van Gogh,” she said. “You can see this structure in other of Van Gogh’s paintings.”
We know that Van Gogh drew this painting because he mentioned it several times in his letters to his younger brother, Theo. Yet it hadn’t been seen until it was found and is now owed by the Marunuma Art Park in Japan.
“We decided to do a collaborative investigation with the Marunuma Art Park, the Museum of Modern Art, Saitama, and an art studio called Mori Art Conservation headed by Mr. Naoyoshi Mori.”
Mori is a restorer working with Taguchi’s team. IR System Co., Ltd. also joined this investigation and gave advice on the method of investigation. NHK ENTERPRISES, INC. also helped us by recording the activities. She also invited HORIBA, Ltd. to join in this project because of its experience on “Daubigny's Garden” (1890) and her previous collaboration on "Clumps of Grass" (1889).
“It was his drawing technique used in the sky area of the painting,” she said. “Through X-ray fluorescence analysis, which identified the various pigments in the work, we could see how Van Gogh drew the clouds to make them look as if the clouds are fluttering. I was surprised to know that such a complex technique was used even in the clouds part of the painting.”
Dr. Taguchi also found the typical coloring technique of Van Gogh in this painting interesting. You can see the dots around the building windows behind the people and cows in the middle of the painting. It looks something like illuminations, people standing, or unexpected stains derived from paintings.
“It is difficult for us to know what the dots really are. However, through X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy analysis, we could find out the dots consisted of certain elements. The results suggested that the dots were plotted using the same colorants and it helped us to conclude that the dots were probably plotted intentionally,” she said.
In addition, look at the cows in the center of this painting, Dr. Taguchi points out.
“It just looks white, but we know that different white colorants were used in different parts of the cows,” as a result of the XRF analysis. For example, a white colorant “lead white” was used to draw the cow's shape and another white colorant called zinc white was used in the cow's waist, tail, and some of its legs. Thus, we can see such complex coloring techniques in other parts of this painting such as the sky, and the windows of the house to give a three-dimensional effect in the painting.
Finally, can you see the complex layer structure of green colorants used in the grass part of this painting?
“He often overlay similar colorants to give a three-dimensional effect and reality in his oil paintings such as one of his famous paintings, "Clumps of Grass" (1889), which is in the collection of the Pola Museum of Art, Japan. We learned he used the technique even in his water colorants painting. Thus, scientific investigation tells us the behind stories of a painting such as an artist’s trial and error and the transition of artwork. We plan to publish the results of our detailed analysis in near future. I hope it helps you enjoy the artwork from the scientific point of view.”
“I mainly specialized in the conservation and restoration of paintings and contemporary art,” Dr. Taguchi said. “I earned a diploma in art painting conservation and restoration in Italy and worked there for a while. After I came back to Japan, I studied the techniques and histories of art conservation and restoration. While spending time in Japan, I received opportunities to be involved in the conservation and restoration of various artworks which were different from what I found in Italy. I always try my best to share what I found in my investigations and to have more discussions with various people from various fields. I believe that such activities let more people think about what artists want to tell in their artwork.”
“When we say that our job is ‘art conservation and restoration’, many people imagine that we always repair artworks by hand or repair damaged parts of artworks,” she said. “However, we start our job with observation. Observation, looking into an artwork deeply, is most important because it tells us what the artwork was made from and how the artwork was made. Such information dictates the appropriate conservation and restoration method for the artwork.”
The artwork tells us the stories behind the object once we look into them carefully. For example, once you see an artwork carefully, you may wonder why the artist made it like this or why the artist used this color for this part. Such questions help us understand more about the artwork. It is an important process for conservators to know the appropriate approach for the conservation and restoration of artworks. In addition, scientific analysis brings more detailed insights into the artwork. After these processes, we can start appropriate art conservation and restoration.
“I believe that art conservation and restoration allow people in the modern age and artwork made in old age to encounter each other once again,” she observed.
Dr. Taguchi believes that art conservators play a role like a bridge connecting the current state to our future to succeed in great artworks. Their conservation and restoration activities, she believes, are essential to making it possible.
“I always try my best to record what we found in artworks and what kind of restoration we did on them,” she said. “This idea came from my experience that I have learned from our precursors’ records in my restoration activities. I learned, for example, from the restoration techniques which was done on an artwork 50 years ago. I could learn what the restoration really became 50 years later according to the current status of the artwork. Once I know such information, I can find out what I should do this time to keep it in a better way. As I gain experience, I hope my records will be helpful for our successors in the future. This idea always motivates me to do so.”
Dr. Taguchi has worked mainly on paintings, but recently she’s had more opportunities related to other archaeological artworks.
“I am glad to have consulted on investigation, conservation, and restoration of artwork which came from new fields for me. Moreover, I feel these experiences makes me broaden my horizon. I would like to keep increasing my knowledge of artworks and the materials used in them. It is my motto.”
“In addition, I always treasure every encounter. I believe that a better understanding of artwork can be achieved by teamwork with more people for conservation and restoration. I believe that we cannot achieve a better understanding of artworks for conservation and restoration alone. We can achieve it by teaming with various people having various backgrounds, and it opens the doors and shows me new worlds which I will never see alone. This is one of the most exciting times in my job.”
Dr. Taguchi used an XGT-5200 micro-X-ray fluorescence spectrometer open chamber model* to perform the analysis.
*This product has been discontinued, and its features have been integrated into a new model XGT-9000SL, a super large chamber model with superior speed and flexibility.