Art in the attic


Two years before he took his life, Vincent Van Gogh found himself on a hillside in southern France, transfixed by the beauty of the horizon. Having spent many years in mental anguish, the painter treasured the moments when the world seemed to whisper its secrets to him.

Mr. Van Gogh could see exactly how sunlight bathed the gnarled oak trees before him, imparting a fiery nobility that was obvious to anyone who saw the world the way he did. He painted the scene on a large canvas, using the heavy brush strokes that characterized his best work during that period.

Despite its undeniable power, Sunset at Montmajour was considered a failure by Van Gogh, because it didn’t fully capture his vision. Theo Van Gogh eventually took possession of it and catalogued it with hundreds of other paintings by his melancholic older brother. It was included among elite works by the Dutch master, but it took more than a century for the painting to get the respect it deserved.

It was sold to a Paris dealer in 1901, and resold in 1908 to a Norwegian art collector who was told by experts that it was a fake. The painting ended up in an attic, where it collected dust until its owner died in 1970.

That’s when the current owners bought it, making what would eventually be seen as one of the smartest investments ever. After a two-year investigation that included pigment analysis and inspection of the underpaint, researchers at Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum have declared Sunset at Montmajour genuine.

This month, the painting will go on exhibit at the museum for a year. Its owner has yet to say whether it will be sold after that, but chances are good that no “experts” will be consulted this time.