Arts: No cachet in a Gachet

Van Gogh's artistic output in the last few months of his life was huge. Impossibly so, say some scholars. Are some of them fakes painted by his doctor? An exhibition in Paris has re-opened the controversy.

In the last 70 days of his life, Vincent Van Gogh produced 70 paintings. There are several theories about this final star-burst of creativity, which generated many of the canvases for which he is best remembered (The Church at Auvers; The Cornfield).

Was it an explosion of nervous and artistic energy after his release from hospital, following the auto-amputation of his ear? Was it a frantic and tragic attempt to paint as much as he could before he lost the struggle with depression, which led to his botched suicide and slow death in July 1890?

In the past two years, several art journalists and scholars have revived another explanation for Van Gogh's extraordinary production during the final 10 weeks of his life in Auvers-sur-Oise, north-west of Paris: he didn't paint them all. Several of the Auvers paintings, they suggest, are fakes, painted, most probably, by Dr Paul Gachet, his doctor, sometime friend and the subject of two of the Auvers canvases.

The claims and counter-claims about the authenticity of at least four of the works (including one of the Gachet portraits) have already led to two court cases in France and a series of mutually insulting articles by some of the best-known names in Parisian art criticism.

An exhibition which opened at the Grand Palais in the capital this week claims to prove, scientifically, that all of the Auvers works are genuine and seeks to lay the controversy to rest. But there is small hope of that. The show has simply ignited another series of blasts and counter-blasts.

Supporters of the "Gachet fake" theory accuse the French museums service of mounting a self-serving exhibition, intended to whitewash (as it were) the doubts surrounding several Van Gogh canvases owned by the French state (as well as a couple of Cezannnes). The experts in the museums service dismiss the critics as amateurs, who refuse to allow scientific proof to disturb their pet theories, which they have erected from false intuitions and circumstantial evidence.

In other words, the show has become Exhibit A in a legal and art-political argument, as well as an exhibition. No matter. It is a fascinating show, as well as a fascinating argument and a fascinating story.

Dr Gachet was a railway doctor, a self-declared specialist in nervous problems, but also an amateur artist, who befriended several of the painters of the day (Cezanne, Pissarro, Monet, Renoir). It was Pissarro who recommended to Van Gogh's brother, Theo, that the troubled Vincent should be sent to live near Dr Gachet in Auvers after he emerged from hospital in May 1890.

The painter and the art-struck doctor got on well at first but Van Gogh began to have his doubts, writing to his brother that Gachet was "sicker than me. When the blind lead the blind, don't they both fall in the ditch?". This letter, and Gachet's unusual behaviour after Van Gogh shot himself - he failed to remove the bullet and, in effect, left him to die - have led some historians to blame the eccentric doctor for the artist's death.

Gachet assembled a large collection of works by his painter friends, including seven Van Goghs, three Cezannes, a Monet, a Renoir and several Pissarros. They were eventually donated to the French state by his son between 1949 and 1954. Almost all now belong to the Musee d'Orsay and almost all are in the Grand Palais exhibition. Alongside them hang other works by Van Gogh and Cezanne and many original paintings and self-declared copies carried out by both Dr Gachet and his son, under the pseudonyms Paul and Louis Van Ryssel.

But which are the Van Ryssels and which are the Van Goghs? The show has been put together by the chief curator at the Musee d'Orsay, Anne Distel, and Louis Van Tilborgh of the Van Gogh Foundation in Amsterdam. By hanging the Van Goghs and the Van Ryssels (Gachets) side by side, the curators hope to prove the first part of their argument. The disputed pictures - especially the "second" portrait of Dr Gachet - may be below the quality of the artist's best work but are infinitely superior to anything attempted by the doctor or his son.

Furthermore, the curators say, both the Van Goghs and the known Gachet paintings have been subjected to 12 months of the most minute and rigorous chemical and X-ray analysis. These investigations reveal that the amateur, and amateurish, Gachets always drew the outlines of their subjects and filled in the colours later, like a child painting by numbers. The disputed Van Goghs and Cezannes were not painted in this way. They were painted directly on to the canvas.

"The X-rays showed no signs of touching up. It showed a strong, firm line in Van Gogh's manner and a background filled in with large brushstrokes, crossing over one another, as in most of his paintings," reported Daniele Giraudy, head of the contemporary arts laboratory at the French museums directorate.

Convincing proof? Not in the least, say the doubters. "The star canvas of the exhibition [the portrait of Dr Gachet] is a cuckoo's egg," said Benoit Landais, the French art critic and Van Gogh specialist. He points to the letters sent by Van Gogh to his brother in June and July 1890, which gave detailed accounts of all his work in Auvers but made no mention of a second portrait of the doctor. M Landais says that the painting is manifestly a fake, probably copied from a photograph of the original.

Another French critic, Jean-Marie Tasset, says the exhibition shoots itself in the foot. By hanging two unimpeachable Van Goghs - The Church at Auvers and a self-portrait - close to the disputed painting, they have exposed the "second" Gachet portrait as "a lifeless, clumsy, soulless composition". On the contrary, says Mr Van Tilborgh of the Amsterdam Van Gogh Foundation, the portrait is a "moving work", well beyond the capacity of either of the Gachets...

And so the argument goes on. And on.

Along the way, the research by the French museums' laboratories has proved something which has long been suspected. Van Gogh used cheap materials in his Auvers period and some of the colours in his later canvases have faded or changed, especially those based on red. In that sense, all these later Van Goghs are "fakes": in the sense that they are not what the painter intended.

The foxgloves grasped in Dr Gachet's hand in the "first", undisputed,portrait have altered colour from mauve to blue. Curiously, exactly the same change has occurred in the second, disputed painting. If Dr Gachet faked this painting, did he use the same cheap paints as Van Gogh? This seems unlikely because in all the accepted Gachets, he is known to have used higher- quality materials. Is the "cuckoo's egg" a discoloured Van Gogh after all?

A Friend of Cezanne and Van Gogh, Doctor Gachet 1828-1909, at the Grand Palais until 26 April

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor