Sunset at Montmajour critique: Nature is alive with motion in this magnificent Van Gogh failure

Work is almost religious in the fervour of its making

The story is an extraordinary one. A Van Gogh was lost to view for more than a century because its purchaser, a Norwegian industrialist, was told by a French expert soon after he bought it in 1908 that it was a fake and, stung, he banished it to the loft. And then, when it did finally emerge, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam was reluctant to authenticate it because it was too flawed to be genuine.

Now they have changed their minds, and they are right to do so. Though it is indeed flawed, this is the genuine thing, a Van Gogh painted in 1888, the year of his greatest achievements – a little later in that same year he would be living for three great and tumultuous months with Paul Gauguin and painting his sunflowers. This particular scene is even described, in some detail, in a letter. Van Gogh had clearly pinpointed it with great exactitude before he painted it. But nothing went quite to plan. He arrived at the spot too late in the day. He had to hurry. The mistral was too blustery. It is therefore, in part at least, a botched job. Finally, it proved to be a disappointment to him. But not to us.

It has all the feverish atmosphere of a genuine Van Gogh. It shows a nature virginal in its appeal, alive with movement. The work is almost religious in the fervour of its making.

The landscape feels as if it is ever-shifting. The terrain is harsh, dry, stony. The execution of these gnarled, twisty, rising holm oaks is nervily rapid. And behind all the agitation of that foreground, there is a wheat field, calmer, more settled ground altogether. He wrestles, throughout, with the sheer complexity of the colour – how to render the scene at this particular dying moment. The light was failing as Van Gogh worked, and there is a sense of hurry and frustration – there are passages of in-filling, of near abstraction. It is, in short, a magnificent part-failure of a great discovery.