A case of 40 Van Gogh paintings once sold for less than $1


Van Gogh’s first seascapes, Scheveningen beach in calm weather (August 1882), was auctioned for $2.8 million at Sotheby’s, New York, on November 14. It is an important painting, since it is the artist’s first oil landscape, painted in the fishing village of Scheveningen, near The Hague. It was done on the beach, not in the studio, and it’s confirmed by grains of sand embedded in the paint.

But Scheveningen beach in calm weather is also fascinating for a very different reason. Its survival is almost miraculous, as it was one of at least 40 paintings that Vincent abandoned when he left the family home in the village of Nuenen in the south of the Netherlands. In November 1885, he left for Antwerp and three months later he settled in Paris.

Van Gogh’s former studio in Nuenen, in the house of Johannes Schafrat (photograph from the early 1920s), published in Benno Stokvis, Nasporingen: Omtrent Vincent van Gogh in Brabant1926

In March 1886, Vincent’s mother, Anna, and her sister Wil also left Nuenen, settling 70 km away in Breda. The two women then had Vincent’s paintings crated and stored by a mover and carpenter from Breda, Adrianus Schrauwen.

Advertisement for Adrianus (Janus) Schrauwen, Bredasche Courant (1908), reprinted in Ron Dirven and Kees Wouters, Vincent van Gogh: Het Mysterie van de Bredase Kisten (2003)

Vincent had not forgotten the works, and in June 1888 he wrote to Wil: “It might still be worthwhile to salvage something good from my bric-a-brac which, if [his brother] Theo says, is still somewhere in an attic in Breda. His request was apparently not followed, and the following year Anna and Wil again moved to Leiden, leaving behind the cash register with Schrauwen.

In April 1890, Vincent wrote again to his mother and sister: “Do you still by chance have any of my old studies and drawings? Even if they are not good on their own, they can refresh my memory and provide information for new work… But it is not important enough for you to spend a long time looking for them. Three months later, Vincent committed suicide.

The Van Gogh family did nothing about the crate for over a decade, and then a tangled history emerged. Approaching Schrauwen in 1903, they are told that he had stored the crate until the previous year, when he had sold the contents to a second-hand dealer in Breda, Johannes (Jan) Couvreur.

Couvreur reported that he purchased at least 40 paintings for a total of one guilder (then equivalent to about 50¢ US). After that, the works were sold to Kees Mouwen, who ran a clothing store in Breda, and his cousin Willem van Bakel. In 1903, the importance of the paintings was finally appreciated when they were purchased from these two men by the Rotterdam art dealer Christiaan Oldenzeel, who then set up a Van Gogh exhibition.

Among the paintings in the crate was Scheveningen beach in calm weather. Oldenzeel quickly sold the picture, and after spending most of the 20th century with a series of Dutch collectors, it went to America around 2010.

The seascape was then loaned to a place that was not used to exhibiting Van Goghs: the Minnesota Marine Art Museum. in Winona. Presumably, the photo belonged to a public-spirited local collector, who eventually entrusted it to Sotheby’s.

Scheveningen beach in calm weather is Van Gogh’s fourth oldest oil painting (the other three are still lifes). Vincent had written to Théo in August 1882 to tell him that he found working in oil “very attractive because it is a powerful means of expression”.

Letter from Vincent to Théo dated August 10-11, 1882, with a sketch of Scheveningen beach in calm weather Credit: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Vincent added in his letter:[I] I went to the beach this morning, and just came back with a rather large painted study of sand, sea, and sky, and some fishing boats and men on the beach. There is still sand from the dunes in it. This modest marine will be a precursor of the powerful landscapes he painted in Provence, barely six years later.

Other Van Gogh short stories:

by Van Gogh Long grass with butterflies (April 1890) Credit: National Gallery, London

• The National Gallery in London will send 52 of its paintings on tour in China, the main image being that of Van Gogh Long grass with butterflies (April 1890). Other works are by Raphael, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Canaletto, Constable, Turner and Monet. The first place of Botticelli to Van Gogh: Masterpieces from the National Gallery will be the Shanghai Museum (January 17-May 7, 2023), with two more locations yet to be announced. The tour will raise funds for the London gallery.

• Alan Turnbull’s book Who shot Van Gogh? Facts and fakes about the world’s most famous artist just published by Thames & Hudson. The book asks, where is the truth and where does the myth begin? Presenting a collage of succinct facts and “counterfacts,” short excerpts in thematic chapters are drawn from a wide variety of sources: fellow artists, friends and family, doctors and psychoanalysts, actors and writers, theorists, crackpots and academics. An intriguing read, the book raises questions, rather than answers them.


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