There’s Nothing like a Real Van Gogh Watercolor
By Moyna Stanton, Paper Conservator at the Cleveland Museum of Art
Vincent van Gogh, the Dutch artist best known for his vibrant oil on canvas paintings like The Starry Night, has recently been in the spotlight due to the traveling Immersive Van Gogh experience. This has encouraged the Cleveland Museum of Art, among other museums, to highlight the artist’s original artworks in the collection. The CMA’s special installation includes four works, two of which are notably unique: an etching and a watercolor.
Let’s zoom in on the details of one of Van Gogh’s watercolor paintings.
Landscape with Wheelbarrow is one of sixteen works on paper to survive from Van Gogh’s brief sojourn in Drenthe, the Netherlands, from mid-September to late December 1883. This watercolor depicts the vast wet heathland with its peat bogs and shallow bodies of water that characterized the edges of the province at the time.
When looking at this watercolor, the viewer is plunged into a boldly executed and astonishingly verdant landscape that rolls out from the picture plane across a great expanse to meet a softly lit and crepuscular, pink-tinged sky.
Details, Materials, and Process
The Horizon Line
Beginning with the delicate sky and hazy horizon that offset the emphatic terrain, the image reveals Van Gogh’s watercolor technique and hand. Dilute lean and sparsely pigmented applications of paint yielded whispers of color; these watery washes were manipulated with extraordinary finesse to capture features along the horizon specific to the locale. The great distance and poor visibility invite thoughtful looking and imagination, an exercise rewarded with the discovery of what Van Gogh may have sought to capture in this small but powerful sheet.
Moving from left to right, the viewer perhaps encounters some red-roofed cottages, then very far off are two tall towers, possibly a lift bridge. Next, nestled in the far landscape, may be a church steeple — a convincing representation comprising a mere tiny scratched-away highlight with a nimbus of lines extending upward — and about midway across the distant planes a narrow winding waterway emerges, implicitly linking the water in the foreground to the infinite space beyond. The meticulous way these elusive details were recorded makes for a strong case that Van Gogh painted this watercolor from direct observation and not later in the studio from memory.
Pigment-rich, fluid applications of watercolor were used to depict the stretch of lush heath interrupted by a stream, pond, or canal. A wheelbarrow left at the edge of the water is the artist’s nod to the area’s long-standing industry of peat cutting, a recurring theme in the Drenthe works at the Van Gogh Museum. In these predominantly green passages, Van Gogh layered color throughout; he applied wet paint over dry and, increasingly moving into the foreground, used the wet into wet technique.
Washes, touches, brushwork
More controlled brushwork in the middle ground included puddling a green pigment, or blend of pigments, over dry layers to form animated, biomorphic shapes defined all around by a hard edge (tide-line) where the pigment and binder concentrated after drying. More than any other, these applications confirm that Van Gogh held the sheet flat as he worked, conceivably on an easy-to-carry lap-easel. Dry touches of an opaque bright yellow pigment emphasize the bank on the opposite side of the water, possibly representing plant growth native to the water’s edge. Swift notations made with the point of the brush cursorily define the higher vegetation on the near side of the water.
Wet into Wet Technique
In the immediate foreground, the vegetation continues to change with varied brushwork as Van Gogh adopted an increasingly spontaneous, exaggerated, and energetic approach. As the scene moves closer into view it falls out of focus with broad generous washes and extensive wet into wet work characterized by soft edges and billowing patterns. In his enthusiasm, Van Gogh seems to have been striving to conjure all the senses to experience the essence of the place, to capture the wet, fertile untamed heath as something that the viewer can feel and smell as much as see.
Tangible proof of the artist’s process and hand is also preserved in this drawing. In addition to trapped brush hairs, his fingerprints were left behind in the paint surface. Whether the evidence and artifacts of materials and process are intentional or incidental, the immediacy of this sheet is a poignant reminder of how art connects us with our past, transports our imagination, and makes time stand still.
The Conservation of the Watercolor
Areas with Loss of Pigment
Looking more closely at this foreground passage we find aging patterns and changes to the work. In the layering, numerous applications — both binder rich and dry (underbound) paint — show a tendency to crack and, in some areas, flake off. This is a sign that the layers are poorly adhered; it is most apparent in two green passages where the intense green colors abut washes heavily pigmented with white. In these areas the upper green layers of paint have cracked and flaked off to reveal the underlying bright green-yellow paint. Poor adhesion between the layers explains this in part, but there is more at play; in both locations there is prior paper creasing indicating the sheet was at one time roughly handled and became crumpled at these sites. This mechanical stress would have encouraged more extreme cracking and ultimately flaking of the paint layers.
These losses are noticeable, but they do not substantially detract from the image. Nevertheless, when the damage was first discovered in 1995, the flaking was active, and a conservation treatment called consolidation was administered to arrest the cracking and flaking and prevent further loss. Consolidation entailed delivering a dilute water-based adhesive into the cracks and underneath the loose paint flakes to readhere them to the substrate and stabilize the vulnerable paint. In addition to a suitable adhesive, essential tools for performing this procedure include a fine sable-hair watercolor brush (with a good point!) and a stereo-zoom microscope. Since 1995, the watercolor has been monitored periodically, always prior to display or travel for loan. Thus far, with careful handling and consistent environmental conditions, the vulnerable paint layers have remained stable.
Due to light sensitivity, Landscape with Wheelbarrow will be on view through Sunday, December 5 — visit gallery 222 this weekend before it leaves! The other three artworks in the special installation There’s Nothing like the Real Thing: Van Gogh at the Cleveland Museum of Art are on view through Sunday, February 6.