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News / November 15, 2016

Canadian Art Historian Embroiled in Van Gogh Sketchbook Controversy [Updated]

Canadian art historian Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov has found herself at the centre of an international Van Gogh sketchbook controversy.
Cover of the new book on Vincent van Gogh, being released today by Abrams Books. Cover of the new book on Vincent van Gogh, being released today by Abrams Books.

Canadian art historian Dr. Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov has found herself at the centre of an international Van Gogh sketchbook controversy today, with stories on the debacle reaching the websites of the GuardianNRC Handelsblad and other international outlets.

Earlier this morning, before the controversy struck, Welsh-Ovcharov was receiving accolades in Canadian media, with the CBC and the Globe and Mail hailing her as the recoverer of a lost Van Gogh sketchbook—a sketchbook which is the basis of a new, $100-priced book on the artist officially being launched today by US-based publisher Abrams Books.

But following a press conference in Paris today, news came out that Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum—an institution which aims to make “the life and work of Vincent van Gogh and the art of his time accessible to as many people as possible in order to enrich and inspire them”—had issued a press release headlined “Found Sketchbook With Drawings Is Not By Van Gogh, According To Van Gogh Museum.”

According to this release from the Van Gogh Museum,

The Van Gogh Museum has been aware for some time of the album of drawings that is now being presented as a lost Arles sketchbook by Vincent van Gogh. At an earlier stage (in 2008 and 2012), our experts gave their opinion on its authenticity at the request of various owners of drawings from the album. Our researchers and curators are happy about every new work that can correctly be attributed to Van Gogh, but on the basis of high-quality photographs sent to them of 56 drawings – out of 65 in total – they were of the opinion that these could not be attributed to Vincent van Gogh.

The release continued:

After examining a number of the original drawings in 2013, our experts did not change their minds. Their opinion, based on years of research on Van Gogh’s drawings in the museum’s own collection and elsewhere – the Van Gogh Museum holds about 500 drawings by Van Gogh and four of his sketchbooks – is that these album drawings are imitations of Van Gogh’s drawings. The experts examined its style, technique and iconography, and among their conclusions were that it contains distinctive topographical errors and that its maker based it on discoloured drawings by Van Gogh.

The museum’s press release then details reasons why the sketchbook does not appear to be a Van Gogh original:

Characteristic style is not in evidence: “Van Gogh’s characteristic refinement – which includes his ability to draw swiftly without sacrificing precision, his profound sense of chiaroscuro and the skilful way he integrated an enormous range of drawing techniques into a compelling whole – is not in evidence in these drawings.”

Brownish ink not typical: “Another telling point is that the drawings in the sketchbook are executed in brownish ink, and this type of ink has never been found in Van Gogh’s drawings from the years 1888-1890. Van Gogh was then drawing in black (and occasionally purple) ink, but that ink has discoloured severely over time, becoming brown. However, the ink in the sketchbook is not discoloured.”

Topographical errors: “Our experts also observed that a number of scenes in the album contain striking topographical errors. For example, the person who drew the men’s wing of the asylum in Saint-Rémy depicted it, in two distinct drawings in the sketchbooks, as ending abruptly, as if it were a freestanding building. In fact, however, that wing is part of two connected buildings.”

Sketchbook’s provenance raises many questions: “The provenance of the album also raises many questions. The owner said in 2007 that the sketchbook came from Mr and Mrs Ginoux in Arles – friends of Van Gogh’s, who owned the Café de la Gare, where he was a regular and which he used as a hotel for a time in 1888. But there is no authentic historical evidence for this claim.”

Notebook seems unreliable: “In our view, the notebook is an unreliable source, and we believe it should be subjected to further examination.”

When questioned today by NRC Handelsblad about the Van Gogh Museum’s assessment, Welsh-Ovcharov called her interactions with the Van Gogh Museum in the lead-up to the book “disappointing and frustrating.”

Welsh-Ovcharov also pointed out that the museum initially assesses works based on photographs of drawings and paintings, rather than the paintings themselves. She also highlighted the fact that the museum has reversed its thinking on supposed Van Gogh fakes in the past, rejecting Sunset at Montmajour in 1991 before deciding to embrace it in 2013.

Welsh-Ovcharov is professor emeritus in the Department of Fine Art at Erindale College, University of Toronto. According to the University of Toronto website, Welsh-Ovcharov received her PhD from the University of Utrecht, and for at least 25 years taught art history at the University of Toronto at Mississauga.

Welsh-Ovcharov has curated a number of exhibitions on Van Gogh, including one at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris that earned her a Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académique. (She was reportedly the first non-French art scholar to be invited to curate the inaugural exhibition at the Orsay.)

Welsh-Ovcharov is a guest curator of the exhibition “Mystical Landscapes: Masterpieces from Monet, van Gogh and more” currently on at the Art Gallery of Ontario until January 29, and soon to travel to the Musée d’Orsay.

The book currently retails for $105 CAD at indigo.ca, with a shipping time of 3 to 5 weeks.

Comment from Welsh-Ovcharov was not available to Canadian Art at press time.

A further statement is expected from the Van Gogh Museum at 1 p.m. Eastern Time today. This post will be updated as more information becomes available.

UPDATE November 15, 1:15 p.m. ET: A further statement from the Van Gogh Museum doubles down on “the museum’s experts’ opinion that the drawings are imitations of Van Gogh’s work.” The museum notes that in 2012 it received photographs of four pages from this purported sketchbook for the purposes of inspection. (According to the Globe, Welsh-Ovcharov didn’t become aware of the notebook until much later, in August 2013.) But while the published book, out today, claims to include all drawings from the sketchbook, it appears to be missing two of the pages that were sent to the Van Gogh Museum in 2012.

Furthermore, the photographs the museum received suggested that Van Gogh made a particular statement on June 19, 1890; in the newly published book, that same statement appears on a page dated June 10, 1890. Due to these and other concerns, the Museum continues to state that “the notebook is an unreliable source, and we believe it should be subjected to further examination.”

UPDATE November 15, 3:20 p.m. ET: The Canadian publicist for Abrams has provided the following response to questions about the Van Gogh Museum’s allegations: “We will answer to the museum’s statement tomorrow, point by point to their affirmations and controversy. We have not changed our minds and are very happy that from now on everybody can make their own opinion after seeing the drawings and reading the analysis in the book,” says Bernard Comment.

UPDATE November 17, 9:52 ET: A communique from the Paris publisher of the book, dated November 17, rebuts the assessments of the Van Gogh Museum, and offers the museum “the possibility of jointly organizing, within a reasonable time frame, a public debate between experts.” The communique also suggests that the museum is claiming “de facto right to a monopoly of attribution.”

The communique outlines the following counterarguments penned by Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov: First, that Van Gogh’s “characteristic style is not in evidence” because “the iconography and draftsmanship of the drawings reflect Van Gogh’s development as a draftsman.” Second, that the brownish ink used reflects the fact that Van Gogh “was familiar with various types of inks and was using them from his earliest creative years.” Third, that what that Van Gogh Museum notes as “topographical errors” in the drawings do not suggest that the sketches are inauthentic, but rather that “Van Gogh’s sketchbook drawings confirm that the artist at times was more interested in composition than in the actual architectural structure for his motifs, as it can be observed in some of his paintings.” Fourth, regarding the Van Gogh’s concerns about the sketchbook’s provenance, Welsh-Ovcharov states that “the museum is relying on information received in 2007 and not on archival research” which includes a note in a journal of a cafe where a Dr. Félix Rey is documented to have left a sketchbook of Van Gogh’s for the cafe owners. Fifth, regarding the museum’s assessment that the notebook is unreliable, and that pages the museum previous examined are not included in the “lost” sketchbook, Welsh-Ovcharov states that “the two-sided page of the notebook dated 19 June was inadvertently kept by teh family adn therefore could not be reproduced in the book.”

The communique also notes that art historian Ronald Pickvance, who worked with Welsh-Ovcharov to authenticate the drawings, stated to the New York Times on November 15 that all 65 drawings are “absolutely O.K., from one to 65… end of song, end of story.”

In other research that has turned up since the start of the controversy on November 15, Artsy spoke with David Brooks, manager of an online Van Gogh catalogue raisonné. Artsy wrote: “This whole thing has really taken everybody by surprise, myself included, because Welsh-Ovcharov has been a well-respected van Gogh specialist, and I would say Pickvance even more so. He’s been in the field for decades,” said Brooks, adding that it’s the first time he has seen highly regarded specialists clash so publicly with the museum since it was founded in 1973. “The Van Gogh Museum usually likes to keep a low profile,” he explained. “Generally if they reject the authenticity of a work—and they do it all the time because they get hundreds of requests like this—they tell nobody. They respect the anonymity of the person who owns the artwork. Publicly releasing this press release and publicly slamming Welsh-Ovcharov is really surprising. It’s a real drama that I’ve never seen happen before.”

The Art Newspaper also noted that “without the blessing of the Van Gogh Museum, the drawings are unlikely to be accepted by the art market.”

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is news and special sections editor at Canadian Art. A graduate of NSCAD University and McGill University, she has also written for the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail. She welcomes tips, corrections and comments any time at leah@canadianart.ca.