The poplar avenue near Nuenen (1885) by Vincent van Gogh, one of the art treasures of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, will be on display at the Tefaf art fair in Maastricht next week. The curtain hangs there because earlier this year Boijmans received a subsidy of 25,000 euros from the Tefaf Museum Restoration Fund. Money intended as a contribution to the preparatory material-technical research for a necessary restoration of the painting.

The ‘poplar avenue’, the first painting by Van Gogh in 1903 to be included in a public art collection, is in dire need of a facelift. The paint is peeling here and there and microscopic examination of the crackle shows that underlying paint is showing through the cracks. In order to fix the unstable paint layer, the later applied and yellowed varnish layers should actually be removed. Can this be done without taking paint at the same time? Restorer Erika Smeenk-Metz has been trying to find an answer to that question since October last year. Together with the head of the restoration department, Christel van Hees, Smeenk talks about this complex investigation.

X-ray

There are two causes for the condition problems of the painting. Van Gogh painted the avenue of poplars on a canvas that he had already used a year earlier. An X-ray shows the subject of that underlying scene: the Old Tower in Nuenen. Van Gogh painted the new scene before the first one had properly cured. This has caused an adhesion problem between the two layers of paint.

Van Gogh painted the poplar avenue on a canvas he had previously used with the church of Nuenen† An X-ray makes the underlying painting visible.
Photo René Gerritsen

The second cause for the peeling paint layer is the use of outdated restoration techniques. Before the war, yellowed layers of varnish may have been made transparent up to three times by treating the painting with alcohol vapours. A boosting technique that makes the varnish soft and transparent again, but also unintentionally leads to a soft layer of paint. In addition, the painting was provided with a support cloth in 1939, a measure that is now only used in emergencies because it requires warm resin and pressure.

When coating, pigments could have been pressed into the varnish layer. If that is the case, complete varnish removal would lead to material loss. But in order to fix the loose paint on the canvas with glue, the layers of varnish have to be removed. Behold the diabolical dilemma for Boijmans’ restoration department.

After Van Gogh’s Nuenen period (December 1883-November 1885), in which he mainly recorded harsh peasant life with The potato eaters as the undisputed pinnacle, relatively little research has been done. Smeenk works together with specialists from, among others, the Cultural Heritage Agency (RCE) and the Van Gogh Museum. The canvas has been examined in recent months with all kinds of advanced equipment, which made it possible to analyze the used paint and binders down to the molecule. According to Smeenk and Van Hees, this will undoubtedly provide new insights into Van Gogh’s painting technique and use of materials in that early phase of his career.

restorer Erika Smeenk-Metz in the restoration studio in the Depot.
Photo Lotte Stekelenburg

Polish scanning equipment

In September, Smeenk will carry out careful varnish collection tests, assisted by specialists from the RCE and Polish researchers with special scanning equipment. Only then can Boijmans make a decision about the treatment of the unstable paint layers. If the removal of varnish is justified, a lengthy restoration process begins in which Smeenk will treat the painting centimeter by centimeter using a microscope. After removing the varnish, she will then fix loose paint, repair damage and also seal the cracks along the edges of the canvas. A chore that visitors of Boijmans Van Beuningen depot can track remotely.

The further investigation may also provide technical evidence on an issue that has long puzzled art historians. Van Gogh took his poplar avenue to Paris. Did he there, under the influence of French painters, apply the lighter touches in the trees and the sky? If this can be demonstrated, it makes The poplar avenue near Nuenen into a key piece, a painting that connects the Brabant and French periods in Van Gogh’s oeuvre. Smeenk doesn’t dare to offer any certainty about it yet. “But there is much to indicate that Van Gogh continued to work on the painting in Paris,” she says.

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