An expert on Vincent van Gogh has tracked down two “unknown” Sunflowers, and has revealed an image of the work destroyed in the Second World War never seen outside Japan.
Martin Bailey, a Van Gogh specialist and author of The Sunflowers are Mine: The Story of Van Gogh’s Masterpiece, discovered a rare image of the work Six Sunflowers in a portfolio in Japan, which has escaped the attention of art historians. He also tracked down another not seen publicly for over 60 years.
“These are the hidden sunflowers that are never seen,” Mr Bailey said. “Both are fully authentic and accepted by Van Gogh scholars.”
The works were among the four painted in Arles in 1888, a series that included Fifteen Sunflowers, one of the most famous images from the art world. Mr Bailey said: “There is something magic about them and it’s hard to put one’s finger on it.”
That work, which hangs in the National Gallery, remains the top-selling postcard for the institution. Van Gogh painted four original Arles sunflower works – originally intended for Paul Gauguin – and three copies a few months later.
The reproduction found in Japan shows the flowers set against a royal blue background with a bold orange frame designed by the artist himself, which “would have been revolutionary in 1888,” Mr Bailey said.
The painting itself was destroyed in an American bombing raid on Ashiya during the Second World War. While the owner managed to save some possessions, he had to leave the Van Gogh because the frame was so heavy. It was destroyed the same day as the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.
Mr Bailey has traced a forgotten image, photographed and published in Japan in 1921. “The painting here has never been reproduced properly before,” he said.
The second “unknown” painting – Three Sunflowers – is one that has not been publicly exhibited in living memory. It was last displayed anonymously in 1948 after which it was bought by Greek shipping tycoon George Embiricos, according to Mr Bailey.
It was subsequently sold in the late 1990s to a wealthy, and extremely private collector who holds “a handful” of Van Gogh works. The work has only been reproduced in a handful of publications and is not well known about.
Mr Bailey, who is a correspondent for The Art Newspaper, also revealed that the paintings should not have focused on sunflowers at all. In the book he details how the models due to sit for Van Gogh failed to show up and the weather was not good enough to paint landscapes leaving him to paint the flowers.
He said: “A close reading of his letters revealed he picked on sunflowers because the weather was bad and his models failed to show up. He often had this problem.” He added: “If the model had turned up this picture may have been something else.”
The four original paintings were completed in less than a week, which is twice as fast as had previously been assumed.
The work in the National Gallery avoided the fate of its bombed colleague as it was evacuated during the war to Muncaster Castle in the Lake District. It needed conservation at the time, which was carried out by a German refugee who fled to Britain. Helmut Ruhemann restored it using a cheese grater, wax, a laundry iron and a dentist’s burnishing implement.