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Clouds over Arles

In response to:

Fakes? from the February 5, 1998 issue

To the Editors:

In her article on the suspicions that hang like dark clouds over some of Van Gogh’s most famous paintings [“Fakes,” NYR, February 5], Geraldine Norman refers to a statement Iam supposed to have made to the effect that Claude-Emile Schuffenecker was the author of copies of paintings by Gauguin. I never made such a statement for two rather simple reasons: Schuffenecker’s regard for Gauguin, the artist, and Gauguin, the man, were dramatically different from his relationship to Vincent. Dozens of letters exchanged between Schuffenecker and Gauguin during the lifetime of the latter, as well as detailed biographical information obtained from private archives, confirms the fact that it would have been unlikely for Schuffenecker to have copied this “phenomenon, [this] disturbing and hostile giant, […] one of the most extraordinary men to dominate matter. He transformed into a work of art all substances, canvas, earth, wood, metal, fabric” (Mercure de France 56, August 1, 1905, p. 346, and August 15, 1905, p. 538). They each named their children after the other (Paul was Schuffenecker’s son and Emil was Gauguin’s) and though they took significantly different artistic paths motivated by entirely different passions and needs, Schuffenecker never ceased to believe that of all the new artists, Gauguin was the “most extraordinarily powerful and fertile of his generation […] one of the forces of nature” (Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, ms. 850329), an initiator to whom an entire generation owed its artistic emancipation.

Additionally, to have copied—or forged—Gauguin’s work would have been a double betrayal: Schuffenecker felt close to Mette, struggling to raise Gauguin’s five children. The sympathy was mutual. Mette admits to him, “If I did not have such devoted friends what would become of me” (May 6, 1891), accuses her husband of “the most monstrously brutal egoism […] No, Schuff, from him nothing can be expected! […] I have written to you because I wanted to relieve my heart […] Do not show this to a living soul” (September 15, 1893), and finally, at the death of her son Clovis from blood poisoning, Mette admits to Schuffenecker that she “has borne many heavy burdens, I have suffered all these distresses, all these worries alone” (June 11, 1900).

I offer this correction only because this misstatement involves me personally. Since Iconsider Ms. Norman to be a friend, I will not comment on the rest of her article, though it is clear to me that questions of this magnitude, upon whose clarification reputations and fortunes rest, will have to wait for scholarship to catch up with journalism.

Jill-Elyse Grossvogel
Catalogue Raisonn̩ Schuffenecker
Ithaca, New York

Geraldine Norman replies:

I am sorry that Mrs. Grossvogel did not make it clear in our earlier exchanges that I was wrong in suggesting that Schuffenecker copied Gauguin. She very kindly went through my notes on Schuffenecker’s life and times and made many other detailed amendments. Sorting out the web of facts in this case, and drawing the right conclusions, is extremely difficult. Professor Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov, who tells me she is researching the reception and collection of Van Gogh’s paintings from 1890 to the 1930s, not just Schuffenecker as I said in my piece, has herself recently been contending with the complexity of the known “facts.” Her article in the March issue of the Burlington Magazine purports to trace, in an “incontrovertible” manner, the history of the Yasuda Sunflowers back to the Van Gogh family. This is the painting whose authenticity I have questioned, as have some of the other commentators whose views I discussed in my article in The New York Review.

Professor Welsh-Ovcharov bases her deductions on the theory—in my view erroneous—that Gauguin once owned the Sunflowers painting now in Philadelphia. The Philadelphia painting is one of two identical versions of Vase with Twelve Sunflowers that Vincent painted in Arles—the Yasuda picture is one of three versions of Vase with Fourteen Sunflowers. Vincent saw the twelve and the fourteen as a natural pair of pictures; the first pair were painted from life in August 1888, the second pair copied from them in January 1889. There is no clear evidence when the third Vase with Fourteen Sunflowers, the Yasuda picture, was painted—if it is, indeed, from the hand of Van Gogh.

The provenance of three of these five large paintings of sunflowers in a vase can be traced without any doubts; but early documents contain many references to “tournesols” or “soleils” which could equally well refer to either the Philadelphia or Yasuda pictures. By placing the Philadelphia picture firmly in Gauguin’s possession, Professor Welsh-Ovcharov is free to assume that references to a painting of sunflowers (number unspecified) that passed from the Van Gogh family to Emile Schuffenecker apply to the Yasuda picture. I still think it more probable that they refer to the Philadelphia picture.

Professor Welsh-Ovcharov’s “proof” that the Philadelphia picture belonged to Gauguin is based on a single entry in the account books of the famous Paris dealer Ambroise Vollard which could equally well refer to other pictures owned by Gauguin. Benǫt Landais, the French writer whose Van Gogh studies have made a fundamental contribution to the present authenticity debate, tells me that he disagrees on several critical issues with Professor Welsh-Ovcharov’s article and expects to put forward a detailed counterargument in Connaissance des Arts. It would be well for those interested in this matter to wait for his case to be published.

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