Vincent van Gogh had written about ‘pink’ flowers and ‘lilac poplar trunks’ in his work, but these were lost in time.
Within a few years they had vanished from the canvas.
So this Professor from Kentucky went on a sort of treasure hunt to find them.
Three hundred and eighty-seven white flowers speckled ‘Undergrowth with Two Figures’, but when Van Gogh completed it in 1890, he never intended that they would all be white.
So Jeff Fieberg of Center College used science to see this painting in a way it hadn’t seen in over a century since Van Gogh.
The incredibly popular “Beyond Van Gogh the Immersive Experience” arrives at the Kentucky International Convention Center in downtown Louisville on July 6. Over the next two months, Louisvillians will have the opportunity to experience 300 of the Impressionists’ famous works of art at a height of 4 trillion resolution pixels.
This is a public, intimate, close-up of digital reproductions of Van Gogh’s masterpieces.
And while Fieberg has nothing to do with the event itself, before the show I wanted to talk to someone who had been up close and intimate with a real Van Gogh.
That’s how I ended up in a video conversation with Fieberg, a chemistry professor who teaches subjects that are crossed in art history. He spent an afternoon explaining to me in great detail how he followed the molecules in pigments to see Van Gogh’s art as it was when his brush first touched the canvas.
Throughout his extensive career, Fieberg has conducted scientific analysis on several famous paintings — including three of Van Gogh’s masterpieces — through a grant at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
For the sake of brevity, I’m going to focus on the 387 “white” flowers in “Undergrowth with Two Figures” and what Fieberg was able to discover about them during the four days he studied the painting in 2011.
You may like:This summer, a compelling exhibition by Van Gogh is coming to Louisville. Here’s what you need to know
By the end of our conversation, I’d know roughly how many of those white flowers should actually be pink.
But how did Fieberg manage to find them?
Van Gogh himself said they were there.
One of the great things about Van Gogh is that so much of his process is recorded in letters to his brother, Theodore Van Gogh, who also served as an art purveyor and art dealer.
“I have a canvas one meter long and only 50 centimeters high with fields of corn,” Van Gogh wrote in a letter that also included a sketch of “Undergrowth with two figures”. “And one that makes a pendant of undergrowth, lilac trunks of poplars, and underneath some flowered grass, pink, yellow, white, and various greens.”
As Fieberg and I stared at the split-screen image, I saw blue columnar trees and a field of white, yellow, and green flowers.
The painting did not quite match the description.
“If you look at this, there’s no pink left,” he explained.
Fieberg then exchanged the entire “Undergrowth with two figures” for a close-up of one of the edges. With that image, we could barely see traces of pink flowers that had been hidden under a frame. Those brushstrokes were not exposed to the elements, so the original color remained.
“This is a light-activated change, or a light-activated blur,” he told me, explaining that Van Gogh mixed red with white to make pink, but more than 130 years later, only the white remained.
To understand exactly why, this particular pink was so prone to fading† we need to go back in time and explore what made the impressionist so bold to begin with: color. Before this era, artists’ palettes were dull and dominated by cream, yellow, brown, and deep red. The striking greens and blues that made Van Gogh famous were developed by chemists in the 19th century.
You may like:Were quilts used as ‘signs’ on the Underground Railroad? How this artist explores the myth
Adding more colors to the canvas changed the whole atmosphere of art.
But as with previous editions of everything, there were flaws, and that was largely the case with a red pigment of the era called ‘geranium lake’, which is cited in several of Van Gogh’s letters.
“Unfortunately for Van Gogh, this paint is extremely fugitive,” says Fieberg. “It loses its color very quickly” because of weak carbon bonds.
The professor then quoted a letter from Van Gogh dated April 11, 1888. “All the colors that Impressionism has brought into fashion are unstable,” Van Gogh wrote. “All the more reason to use them too raw, time will only soften them too much.”
Fieberg had four days to personally study the painting, which is owned by the Cincinnati Art Museum before going on tour. Prior to his analysis, he had been given access to a small paint chip from the painting and was able to identify the exact pigment Van Gogh used on the piece.
Geranium lake had a unique feature that acts as a kind of Rosetta stone for the painting. Bromine, a halogen with a reddish-brown color, isn’t commonly used in paint, Fieberg said, but it does appear in the formula for geranium lake.
If his X-ray fluorescence (XRF) analyzer identified bromine in a white flower, Van Gogh had initially intended it to be pink.
So Fieberg and his team placed that X-ray within a millimeter of the multimillion-dollar masterpiece and started scanning flower by flower for bromine. One of his colleagues used Photoshop to number each of those 387 flowers and determine whether it should be white or pink.
You may like:Busboy by day, award-winning Cuban artist by night. Discover Louisville’s best kept secret
With another click, he switched his screen during our call to a digital mock-up of what the white flowers would look like if 38% of them had been pink.
“It was absolutely incredible to think about seeing the painting as if only Van Gogh had seen it that way,” he told me. “Because (geranium lake) fades in less than three years, hardly anyone would have seen the painting like that.”
There was, of course, the issue of the “lilac trunks of poplars”, which were also not featured on “Undergrowth with Two Figures”. Fieberg didn’t have enough time to dive in during his four-day study, but the same theory applied. Van Gogh had mixed that faint geranium lake with blue to make purple, and more than a century later the red had faded and left the blue alone.
But perhaps the most remarkable part of the whole experiment is gaining a deeper understanding of Van Gogh’s methods.
When Fieberg worked with that painting, he was able to get close enough to the paint to see the thick, deep layers of paint that Van Gogh had applied to the canvas.
“Van Gogh is known for using these wild bright colors, and maybe he used them extra bright because he thought they would fade into something he really wanted,” Fieberg told me.
That’s just one interpretation, but staring at the field without pink flowers wasn’t a bad theory.
Through his work at Centre, Fieberg teaches a foreign course in France. During the trip, his students visit sites that Impressionists painted and study how they would have lived.
They stop at Van Gogh’s grave, which Fieberg says is one of the most emotional parts of the journey.
He was a visionary with an incredible legacy, but he was also just a guy.
You may like:Louisville Native Uses Film To Help Catholic Priests Cultivate Acceptance For LGBTQ People
Sometimes it’s hard to remember that when you’re staring at a multi-million dollar painting or maybe even the 4 trillion high-resolution content pixels heading to Louisville in July.
The way geranium lake appears in his art isn’t the only element of his work that has evolved over time.
Features columnist Maggie Menderski writes about what makes Louisville, Southern Indiana, and Kentucky unique, gorgeous, and a little weird at times. If you have something in your family, your city, or even your closet that fits that description, she wants to hear from you. Say hello at [email protected] or 502-582-4053. Follow it on Instagram and Twitter @MaggieMenderski.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated how long ago Van Gogh painted ‘Undergrowth with Two Figures’.