The conservation of Vincent van Gogh’s 'Orchard bordered by Cypresses', F513

A recent project within the painting conservation studio was the cleaning by Esther van Duijn of the painting 'Bloeiende Boomgaard omgeven door Cipressen' by Vincent van Gogh. The painting (oil on canvas) is one of the fourteen paintings of fruit tress or orchards in blossom that Van Gogh made between 24 March and 21 April 1888.


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The conservation of this painting consisted primarily of the removal of some surface layers that were not part of the original painting. The layers were comprised of various substances: dirt, paraffin, old varnish, traces of glue and discoloured overpainting. The entire scene apart from the sky is painted in thick layers of impasto, creating a highly textured surface. Such a surface makes it more difficult to remove the non-original layers, which collect around the raised areas of impasto painting resulting in a dark brown build-up. The removal of these layers is thus conducted with the use of a microscope and various solvents applied with small brushes. The solvents have been carefully chosen following an extensive range of tests in order to remove the undesired layers without affecting the original layers of paint beneath. 


During the conservation work it became increasingly apparent that over the years the layers of paint had discoloured dramatically. The blossoms that are now white or light pink were once a much deeper pink, as is the case in many other Van Gogh paintings. Evidence of this was found during the removal of small pieces of dirt such as insect secretions. Discolouration is caused by the energy of light. These secretions stopped the light reaching the paint and thus prevented the process of discolouration. The red pigment – which was mixed with white to produce the original pink – has been increasingly damaged by light so that a lighter pink and in some areas only white remains.

The discoloured overpainting is mainly restricted to the edges. As with many paintings by Van Gogh, someone has retouched the unpainted sections of ground to make the painting look "complete". These additions have been identified through extensive microscopic research, comparison and detective work. After the research had been carried out a large, high-quality lightprint of the painting was discovered dating from before 1912. 

The light print proved that the overpaint was added years before Helene Kröller bought the painting in 1917

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There are several articles on discolouration in the paintings of Van Gogh:

Maarten R. van Bommel, Muriel Geldof & Ella Hendriks: An investigation of organic red lake pigments used by Vincent Van Gogh (November 1885 to February 1888). In: Art Matters, Netherlands Technical Studies in Art, vol. 3 (2005) ISBN 90-400-9177-3, pp.111-137.

Aviva Burnstock, Ibby Lanfear, Klaas Jan van den Berg, Leslie Carlyle, Mark Clarke, Ella Hendriks & Jo Kirby: Comparison of the fading and surface deterioration of red lake pigments in six paintings by Vincent van Gogh with artificially aged paint reconstructions. In: ICOM-CC 14th Triennial Meeting The Hague, 12-16 September 2005, vol. 1 ISBN 1-8440-7253-3, pp.459-466.

Esther E. van Duijn: De Olijfplukkers van Vincent van Gogh: ontdekkingen rondom verkleuringen van verf. In: Cr, interdisciplinair tijdschrift voor conservering en restauratie, vol. 6, no. 4 (winter 2005). Themanummer 'Licht', pp. 22-25.

Project coordination: Luuk van der Loeff
Duration: Apr 3, 2006 - Sep 29, 2006