Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum has announced the discovery of a new work by Vincent Van Gogh, the first in the museum’s 40-year history.
The painting, entitled “Sunset at Montmajour”, was painted in 1888 and mentioned in an 1890 inventory of the Dutch master’s paintings and in two letters to his brother.
But it slipped from attention after failing to turn up during the 20th century and has never appeared in official catalogues of Van Gogh’s work.
“It’s extremely exciting, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Axel Rüger, director of the museum, told the Financial Times. “In the whole history of the museum, we haven’t had a discovery of this calibre.”
Experts at the museum have spent the past two years verifying the painting’s provenance after it was brought in for examination by its owners, a family with a private collection. The museum declined to reveal any details about the owners for privacy reasons. But it did say they had brought the work in once before, in 1991.
Mr Rüger said no one at the museum knew why it had not been considered for inclusion in Van Gogh’s oeuvre at that time. One hypothesis, he said, was that the location depicted in the painting was unfamiliar. It shows a landscape near the village of Montmajour, on the outskirts of Arles, in Provence, that Van Gogh painted at other times, but from a different angle and including the ruins of an abbey which do not appear in his other works.
“Also, there are passages in the picture that are not as well resolved as in some of his other work, where you’re not entirely sure what it really depicts,” Mr Rüger said. “In one part of the painting he really seems to wrestle with the motif and lighting effects.”
Experts were able to verify its authenticity this time using scientific analysis of the canvas and pigments, which matched those Van Gogh used in the late 1880s when he was at the height of his creative powers. Other works from the same period include “The Sunflowers” and “The Yellow House”.
The painting is mentioned in two letters Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo, who promoted and sold his work. It also appears in an inventory of Theo’s collection in 1890.
Mr Rüger said the definitive identification relied on the fact that the number 180 appeared on the back of the canvas, the same number used in Theo Van Gogh’s inventory.
“Sunset at Montmajour” will be displayed as part of the Artist at Work exhibition at the museum, which opens on September 24.
The announcement marks an upbeat moment in a year of mixed news for the Netherlands’ world-renowned museums.
Last month the American director of the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam’s leading modern art museum, announced she would depart in December after a controversial three-year tenure. Ann Goldstein, formerly curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, was hired in 2010 to oversee a renovation intended to shake up an institution widely seen as stuffy and insular. But the new wing at the Stedelijk, which sits next door to the Van Gogh Museum, was savagely criticised by international architecture critics when it opened last year.
In July authorities in Romania announced that seven works stolen from Rotterdam’s Kunsthal modern art museum last year in one of the largest art heists in history had almost certainly been destroyed by the thieves. However, one of the suspects in the theft has since claimed that five of the works still exist.
On a brighter note, the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh’s neighbour to the north, was widely praised for the quality of its decade-long renovation after it reopened in April.