Rice prof’s sleuthing helps ID lost Van Gogh

Sunset at Montmajour

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam announced on Sept. 9 that "Sunset at Montmajour" is an authentic Vincent Van Gogh. Image courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum

Analysis links canvas behind ‘Montmajour,’ MFAH’s ‘The Rocks’ 

A Rice University professor’s super sleuthing made the connection between a painting once thought to be a fake Vincent Van Gogh and a real — and already famous — Van Gogh hanging at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH).

Don H. Johnson, the J.S. Abercrombie Professor Emeritus of Electrical and Computer Engineering, performed statistical analysis of X-ray images of the canvas behind the previously unknown “Sunset at Montmajour.” His research aided experts at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in authenticating the painting.

Don H. Johnson

Don H. Johnson, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, used a signal-processing algorithm to analyze and match the canvases behind a long-lost Van Gogh to another work at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

“I pointed out the very close, but not exact, relationship of this painting’s canvas to the canvas of the only Van Gogh in the MFAH,” Johnson said. “Apparently, this pointed them in the direction of examining the Houston painting for a more detailed comparison.”

The painting’s canvas was a match for “The Rocks,” owned by the MFAH.

Johnson completed his work for the Van Gogh Museum more than a year ago, when he filed a report on his findings. The museum followed up by sending forensic investigators to Houston for a close look at “The Rocks” to see what other characteristics were in alignment.

The Van Gogh Museum unveiled its findings, along with the painting itself, in Amsterdam Sept. 9 – much to Johnson’s surprise.

“I got an email very early that morning, addressed to ‘friends and colleagues’ of the museum, to say they were about to hold a press conference to unveil the painting,” Johnson said. “Then the story appeared in the New York Times and everywhere else a few hours later and the phone started ringing.”

While media reports failed to mention Johnson or Rice – most only made a general mention of the museum’s investigative techniques – those who know Johnson recognized his work when they heard the news. Johnson said he and a collaborator at the University of Arizona are the sole researchers performing forensic investigations of canvas that can be seen in detail only through X-rays.

“When the masters prepared a canvas for painting, they would cut it from the roll, attach it to a stretcher and paint their work. For such a famous artist as Van Gogh, conservators would glue on a backing canvas to preserve the original. Consequently, we can’t simply take it out of the frame and have a look at the original canvas,” he said. “And we certainly can’t take paint off the front.”

Johnson has become well known in the art world for his detailed analysis of canvas used by the masters, particularly by Van Gogh. He uses a signal-processing algorithm that automatically analyzes the thread density in X-rayed canvases to reveal previously unavailable details about the materials of the masters. The process creates what amounts to a canvas “fingerprint.”

The software lets Johnson see how loosely or tightly a canvas is woven. That lets him create a map of the weaving variation pattern that can be compared to see how paintings may be related.

While the weaving patterns revealed for “Sunset at Montmajour” and “The Rocks” don’t line up perfectly, they are without doubt from the same bolt of fabric, likely one Van Gogh had sent to him by his brother Theo in Paris, Johnson said. Although Van Gogh was poor, he was particular about his materials, Johnson said.

The unsigned “Montmajour” is privately owned and from what the Van Gogh Museum considers to be the artist’s most productive period, during his time in Arles in 1888 and before his grip on sanity began to slip. (He died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1890.)

A complete look at the painting and its history is the subject of a cover story by art historians at the Van Gogh Museum in the October issue of the respected art journal The Burlington Magazine.

Museum officials said the painting was left to Theo upon Vincent’s death. Theo’s widow sold it to a Paris art dealer who subsequently sold it to a Norwegian collector in 1908. Declared fake, “Montmajour” was banished to an attic until 1970. The current owners brought it to the Van Gogh Museum in 1991, and at that time the museum’s experts doubted it’s authenticity – a decision they now describe as “a painful admission.” But when the family returned two years ago, the museum decided to make use of new technology to have another look.

The painting does not seem to be one of Vincent Van Gogh’s personal favorites. In a letter to Theo that experts once thought referred to “The Rocks” (but now know better), he described the scene as having “a charming nobility.”

“You wouldn’t have been at all surprised to see knights and ladies suddenly appear, returning from hunting with hawks, or to hear the voice of an old Provencal troubadour,” he wrote.

Alas, he concluded, the painting “was well below what I’d wished to do.”

That does not lessen Johnson’s desire to form his own opinion. Technology lets him see beauty far more than skin-deep, but there’s no substitute for the direct link from the artist’s vision to the observer’s heart.

“I’ve seen the X-ray, but I’d really like to see the painting itself,” he said.

About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.