- - Monday, February 6, 2017


By Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov

Abrams/Editions du Seuil, $85, 288 pages

We occasionally hear about the discovery of a previously unknown artifact, such as a painting or musical composition. This revelation tends to lead to vigorous debates, disagreements and denials from experts in a particular field.

Which brings us to Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov’s “Vincent van Gogh: The Lost Arles Sketchbook.” It details the surprising discovery of a sketchbook containing 65 drawings by the late French Impressionist painter, which had been hidden for more than a century. Some art experts have disputed its authenticity. Others have called it one of the greatest artistic finds in history.

Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Who knows — but it’s a fascinating tale that needs to be told.

It begins with the “close relationship” that Van Gogh had with Joseph and Marie Ginoux, owners of the Cafe de la Gare in Arles, France. His “reliance on their support are well known,” both “artistically and personally.”

This relationship has, in fact, been previously documented. The cafe was located a short walk away from the famous yellow house where Van Gogh lived between 1888-1890. Correspondence between the painter and the couple has also been published. In an unusual coincidence, these “discolored and stained letters had lain overlooked and unknown in the possession of the Ginoux family” for 32 years before their discovery.

What about the controversial sketchbook? A small, tattered carnet (or notebook), written between May and July 1890 and discovered “among the Ginoux couple’s business papers,” plays a significant supporting role.

Most of the notebook’s 26 pages, which are reprinted in Ms. Welsh-Ovcharov’s book, are of little historical importance. One entry stands out: a May 20, 1890 scribbling that a “‘grand carnet de dessins,’ or large book of drawings,” was delivered by Dr. Felix Rey to the Caf de la Gare. This was the Arles-born doctor who took care of the painter after he “mutilated” part of his left ear in 1888.

Why was the sketchbook given to the Ginoux? The author speculates it could “partly have been because the baggage allowance on the train to Paris,” when Van Gogh went back to the great city on May 1890, “was limited and the sketchbook containing the drawings was additional weight.” The more likely reason is “the artist’s gratitude to the Arlesien couple … [i]f indeed it was the Ginoux who had helped him by giving him the ledger to use as a sketchbook, it seems likely that his decision to return it, now filled with drawings, was prompted by his affection for him.”

The entire Arles sketchbook is reproduced in a full-page format, which gives readers the opportunity to look at each detailed scene and image up close and personal. The sketches are also reproduced in a smaller format with original commentary, recognized sketches of the same scenes, and the final paintings on oil and canvas.

While I’m obviously not an expert, the reed pen and brown ink sketches seem to be in line with Van Gogh’s intricate, free-flowing artistic style. Studies of boats, wheat fields, trees, landscapes and the yellow house certainly give the appearance of having come from the master’s hand. Portraits of fellow French Impressionist Paul Gaugin and the Ginoux appear to be of scale, too.

There’s no question that Ms. Welsh-Ovcharov, a Canadian art historian and Van Gogh scholar, has worked hard to prove the Arles sketchbook’s authenticity. Her book is detailed and well-researched, and the timeline she has established certainly makes sense in theory.

Alas, there are several remaining issues that need to be addressed.

Since we can’t confirm the notebook’s author or the sketchbook’s authenticity, it’s impossible to discern fact from fiction. The art community has been fooled by clever forgeries many times in the past. Most art critics remain unconvinced that the sketchbook is the genuine article.

Moreover, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam released an important statement about the sketchbook this past November. In 2008 and 2012, they “gave their opinion on its authenticity — an opinion not mentioned in the publication — at the request of various owners of drawings from the album.” After looking at “high-quality photographs” of 56 of the 65 drawings, they weren’t convinced. Some original drawings were then examined in 2013, along with Ms. Welsh-Ovacharov’s book. The museum’s experts “have not changed their minds,” and still believe these are “imitations of Van Gogh’s drawings.”

We may never know if these sketches were drawn by Van Gogh. Fortunately, most people like a good mystery — and this one could endure for many years.

• Michael Taube is a contributor to The Washington Times.

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