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

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own