Van Gogh’s works View of the Sea at Scheveningen (1882) and Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen (1884-1885) go back on display at the Van Gogh Museum tomorrow. After being stolen from the museum in 2002, the paintings were recovered in Italy in 2016. The works returned home soon after, but have spent the last two years in the conservation studio being examined and restored.
Axel Rüger, Director of the Van Gogh Museum: ‘We are delighted to be able to put these significant works in our collection back on display in the museum, where they belong. The conservators have done a brilliant job and the paintings will now go back on permanent display in their full glory, for everyone to see. Having the opportunity to see this happen before the end of my Van Gogh Museum career is a dream come true’.
After the paintings had returned to the museum, it became clear that both works required conservation treatment. View of the Sea at Scheveningen was damaged during the theft; a considerable piece of paint was missing from the bottom left-hand corner. This lacuna was filled using a 3D-printed mould, which was developed based on scans and research to replicate the relief of the original brushstrokes. The conservator subsequently retouched this filling.
To the museum’s relief, Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen was hardly damaged, but the painting was covered with a non-original glossy varnish layer that had yellowed over time. Investigation showed that this layer could be removed. The colours are now much brighter and cooler, particularly the sky. During examination of the painting, the conservator also discovered another varnish layer (protein based, probably an egg white varnish) that was applied by Van Gogh himself. This is the first time that such a layer has been found in the artist’s early work.
New frames have also been selected for both paintings; the old frames were removed by the thieves.
Back on display since since Wednesday 17 April, View of the Sea at Scheveningen and Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen is back on permanent display at the museum. In the initial months, the paintings will be displayed alongside information about the conservation treatment. In mid-September, the works will return to their ‘old’ place in the presentation of the collection, alongside Van Gogh’s other early paintings.
YouTube series and Unravel Van Gogh app
The research and conservation treatment process was filmed. The episodes are available on the Van Gogh Museum YouTube channel, as are the previous episodes about the recovered paintings, under the title Van Gogh Returns.
The Unravel Van Gogh web app contains visual material and more information about the paintings, the recent research and the conservation treatment. The web app is free to use via mobile, desktop or tablet.
The return and conservation threatment of the works is supported by the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, the BankGiro Loterij, Van Lanschot, Heineken, Kikkoman Foods Europe B.V. and Bulgari.
Conservation treatment of View of the Sea at Scheveningen
View of the Sea at Scheveningen (1882) is one of only two seascapes that Van Gogh painted in the Netherlands, and one of his first works in oil paint. View of the Sea has suffered a great deal over the years. Van Gogh painted it on paper, which was later fixed to panel during a conservation treatment. This panel was removed during a subsequent conservation treatment, and the work was attached to a canvas.
When the work was stolen from the museum, a piece of the painted paper measuring approximately 7 x 2 cm was torn from the bottom left-hand corner. In order to fill this lacuna, the scanning technique optical coherence tomography (OCT) was used to measure the thickness of the surrounding paint and the contours of the missing corner (this work was conducted by Northwestern University, Chicago). By combining this information with a raking light photograph from before the theft, the scientists were able to determine the relief, and therefore the surface. This was subsequently shaped in a 3D-printed mould. The filling from the mould was then attached to the painting by the conservator – the relief of the filling perfectly matched the brushstrokes of the original paint. Finally, the filling was retouched by hand, after an old photograph of the painting (in which the bottom left-hand corner is still intact).
A non-original varnish layer was also removed and old overpaint on the painting was retouched to make it visually less disturbing. This overpaint had discoloured and due to aging, had become insoluble. The remains of a signature ‘Vincent’ were discovered during the conservation treatment, but it is most likely that this was applied by someone else other than Van Gogh.
Conservation treatment of Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen was hardly damaged when it was stolen. Examination did reveal that the painting had multiple varnish layers; the top two of them consisting of a synthetic resin, which were applied during a conservation treatment in 1961. Extensive research revealed that this varnish – that was glossy and yellowed with age – could be removed safely without affecting the underlying original paint layers. Now that these varnish layers have been removed the original colours as intended by the artist can be appreciated once again.
During this treatment, an original varnish was also discovered. This protein-based layer, probably egg white, was applied by Van Gogh himself sometime between 1884 when he first worked on the painting, and the autumn of 1885, when he returned to it. The varnish was namely found on the surface of the paint from the first painting session, and under the overpaint added by the artist later. Van Gogh did not remove this so-called ‘saturating varnish’, which means it still covers almost the entire surface. When he applied the protein-based layer, the paint underneath was not yet completely dry. The paint and varnish have therefore formed a close bond. Due to this, and to the fact that Van Gogh did not remove the varnish on the painting, the conservators decided to leave this original layer intact.
Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen is the only early painting in the Van Gogh Museum collection with a protein-based varnish layer that was definitely applied by Van Gogh. In a few letters to his brother Theo from the period, he mentions applying a layer of egg white to paintings to ‘saturate’ the colours.