Hidden in plain sight: How this Kentucky teacher uncovered a secret in a Van Gogh painting


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THE COURIER JOURNAL

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Vincent Van Gogh had written about “pink” flowers and “lilac trunks of poplars,” in his work, but they were lost to time.

In a matter of years, they’d faded from the canvas.

So this Kentucky professor went on a treasure hunt of sorts looking for them.

Three hundred and eighty-seven white flowers speckled “Undergrowth with Two Figures,” but when Van Gogh completed it in 1890, he’d never intended for all of them to be white.

So Centre College’s Jeff Fieberg used science to see this painting in a way it hadn’t been seen in more than two centuries since Van Gogh created it.

The incredibly popular “Beyond Van Gogh the Immersive Experience” is arriving at the Kentucky International Convention Center in downtown Louisville on July 6. For the next two months, Louisvillians will have the chance to experience 300 of the famed Impressionists artworks through 4 trillion high-resolution content pixels.

This is a public, up-close, intimate look at digital reproductions of Van Gogh’s masterpieces.

And while Fieberg has nothing to do with the event itself, ahead of the show, I wanted to talk to someone who’d been up close and intimate with a real Van Gogh.

That’s how I ended up on a video call with Fieberg, a chemistry and art history professor at Centre, who spent an afternoon explaining to me in extreme detail how he followed the molecules in pigments to see Van Gogh’s art as it was when his brush first hit the canvas.

Throughout his extensive career, Fieberg has conducted scientific analysis on several celebrated paintings — including three of Van Gogh’s masterpieces — through a fellowship at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

For the sake of brevity, I’m going to focus on the 387 “white” flowers in “Undergrowth with Two Figures” and what Fieberg was able to uncover about it during the four days he studied the painting in 2011.

By the end of our chat, I’d learn roughly how many of those white flowers were actually supposed to be pink.

But how did Fieberg know to look for them?

Van Gogh himself said they were there.

One of the great things about Van Gogh is that so much of his process is documented in letters to his brother, Theodorus Van Gogh, who doubled as his art supplier and art dealer.

“I have a canvas one metre long by only 50 centimetres high of fields of wheat,” Van Gogh wrote in a letter that also included a sketch of “Undergrowth with Two Figures.” “And one that makes a pendant of undergrowth, lilac trunks of poplars, and underneath them some flower-dotted grass, pink, yellow, white and various greens.”

As Fieberg and I stared at the image on a shared screen, I saw blue column-like trees and a field of white, yellow and green flowers.

The painting didn’t quite match the description.

“If you look at this, there’s no pink left,” he explained.

Fieberg then swapped out the full “Undergrowth with two Figures” for a close-up of one of its edges. With that image, we could just barely see traces of pink flowers that had been hidden beneath a frame. Those brushstrokes hadn’t been exposed to the elements, and so the original color remained.

“This is a light activated change, or a light activated fading,” he told me, explaining that Van Gogh had mixed red with white to make pink, but more than 230 years later, only the white remained.

To understand why, exactly, this particular pink was so susceptible to fading, we have to go back in time and examine what made the Impressionist so bold to begin with — color. Prior to this era, artists palettes were dull and dominated by cream, yellow, brown and deep reds. The striking greens and blues that made Van Gogh famous were developed by chemists in the 17th century.

Adding more colors to the canvas changed the whole mood of art.

But like early editions of anything, there were flaws, and that was very much the case with a red pigment of the era called “geranium lake,” which is cited in several of Van Gogh’s letters.

“Unfortunately for Van Gogh, this paint is extremely fugitive,” Fieberg said. “It loses its color very quickly” because of weak carbon bonds.

Then the professor quoted a Van Gogh letter from April 11, 1888. “All of the colours that Impressionism has made fashionable are unstable,” Van Gogh wrote. “All the more reason boldly to use them too raw, time will only soften them too much.”

Fieberg had four days to study the painting, which belongs to the Cincinnati Art Museum, in person before it went on tour. Ahead of his analysis, he’d been given access to a small paint chip from the painting, and was able to identify the exact pigment Van Gogh used on the piece.

Geranium lake had a unique property to it that acts as a Rosetta Stone of sorts to the painting. Bromine, a halogen with a red-brown color, isn’t often used in paint, Fieberg said, but it shows up in the formula for geranium lake.

Essentially, if his X-ray florescent analyzer identified Bromine in a white flower, Van Gogh had initially intended it to be pink.

So Fieberg and his team put that X-ray within a millimeter of the multi-million-dollar masterpiece and went flower by flower scanning for Bromine. One of his colleagues used Photoshop to number each of those 387 flowers and record whether it should be white or pink.

With another click, he switched his screen on our call to a digital mock-up of what the white flowers would look like if 38% of them had been pink.

“It was absolutely incredible to think about seeing the painting maybe like only Van Gogh had seen it like this,” he told me. “Because (geranium lake) fades in less than three years, so hardly anyone would have seen the painting like this.”

There was still the matter of the “lilac trunks of poplars,” of course, that weren’t visible on “Undergrowth with Two Figures” either. Fieberg didn’t have enough time in his four-day study to dive into them, but the same theory applied. Van Gogh had mixed that weak geranium lake with a blue to make purple, and more than …

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