Donald W. Olson looked at the shimmering star and wished.
It was a wish more scientific than wistful. And now it's come true.
The Toledo native, an astronomer at Southwest Texas State University, was gripped by the mystery of the star in a painting by Vincent Van Gogh. It was a puzzle made doubly tantalizing by the fact that this Van Gogh canvas was virtually unknown less than a decade earlier.
“I thought I knew all the Van Gogh starry nights there were. I teach about Van Gogh.'' Dr. Olson said. “I thought I was a big expert. But there was this fifth one,” and it just begged for the application of astronomy to solve the mystery of its creation.
Dr. Olson specializes in hitching the humanities to the stars. His earlier research identified the day and the time that Ansel Adams photographed his famous Moon and Half Dome. Dr. Olson's work revealed the real flood that Chaucer used for comic effect in The Franklin's Tale. And he discovered it was Mars and Venus that Van Gogh painted in April, 1890, in one of the four starry night paintings, Road with Cypress and Star.
So the appearance of a fifth starry night painting set Dr. Olson on his most recent quest, which took him and co-researcher Russell L. Doescher, who runs the Texas university observatory, to Auvers, France, to solve the mystery of this particular night. His wish was to discover the location of the house in White House at Night, the day and time of its painting, and the identity of the star glowing overhead.
The disappearance of the painting in question is no mystery, but a part of the bitter reality of Nazi Germany and the Second World War. In the 1920s, White House at Night belonged to German industrialist Otto Krebs. But with the rise of Nazism, the post-impressionist work was hidden from political rulers who considered the style “degenerate.''
As the war ended, the Van Gogh and countless other art objects disappeared into the Soviet Union, confiscated by the advancing Russian troops. These pieces remained secreted in the Soviet Union until 1995, when the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg made a post-Soviet revelation in a show of 74 impressionist and post-impressionist pieces called, “Hidden Treasures Revealed.''
To reveal the secret of this French White House, Dr. Olson began by looking at historical documents. A letter from the artist to his brother, Theo, on June 17, 1890, seems to describe the painting.
Van Gogh writes of painting “a white house in the greenery with a star in the night sky, and an orange light in the window.''
He sent the letter from Auvers, a town 20 miles northwest of Paris. This is where the artist spent the last 70 days of his life in a fever of creativity, painting more than a canvas a day before shooting himself on July 29, 1890.
Clearly, this fifth starry night was painted before the letter of June 17, a clue that told Dr. Olson volumes. He studied astronomical charts for that time in France and learned of half a dozen bright lights that would be candidates for the one that sparkled in Van Gogh's painting.
Now to hunt for the house. Dr. Olson was reasonably certain that the house in this canvas was an accurate depiction of a real house in Auvers. His research on Van Gogh repeatedly showed the artist as a faithful recorder of his surroundings, accurately portraying building details.
Dr. Olson had experience in Auvers. In 1998, he traveled to the riverside village to find the
street scene depicted in one of the two Van Goghs owned by the Toledo Museum of Art, Houses at Auvers. (The museum's other Van Gogh painting, of a wheat field, was also painted in Auvers.)
But on his most recent trip, Dr. Olson took 10 students who researched the painting as part of his honors class. Each student was supplied a postcard-size image of the artwork and sent to canvass the town.
“The first day, they just took off,'' said Karen Lechner of Toledo. She is Dr. Olson's sister and accompanied him on both trips to Auvers.
The town with a population of about 5,000 stretches along the Oise River for more than three miles.
“If we didn't find it by the third day, I was going to get real organized,'' Dr. Olson said.
By the second day, they had their house. It was about two blocks from where Van Gogh lived in Auvers.
“They were just on cloud nine,'' Ms. Lechner said. “They were all so excited, all talking at once,'' she said.
Before the white house could be verified, the group had to disprove claims made for a second building in Auvers. Tourists were routinely directed to a different house as the source of the white-house painting. But a detailed comparison of the houses and the painting showed Dr. Olson's students were right. The house in the painting had seven windows. The house in the tourist book had five. The house the students found had six, with clear evidence of a seventh window sealed over.
The house in the painting, and the house the students found had the same number of large and small chimneys. The other house had only three large chimneys. And, most striking, the house the students found showed the same odd arrangement for the windows as the painting. The windows are not equidistant from each other, nor are the upper windows aligned with those below. It is the only house the group found in Auvers with this arrangement of windows.
Once the house was identified, naming the heavenly body in the painting was easy. Only one bright object would be in the western sky shown in the paint- ing - the planet Venus.
Further, the direction of the shadows suggests that the painting was made at twilight, thus the front of the house is bright from the sun's last slanting rays. Both the presence of the planet in the evening sky, combined with the shadows cast by a setting sun, suggests it was painted between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m.
It would be impossible to pinpoint the time of the painting by using Van Gogh's Venus as a star map, said Dr. Olson's co-researcher, Dr. Doescher.
“Actually, Venus was farther to the right in reality,'' he said. “My personal belief is Van Gogh scooted it over closer to the house to make a better composition.''
Weather records revealed the date of the painting. These showed only one clear day in the 10 before the artist wrote to his brother about the white house. That cinched it. Van Gogh painted the fifth starry night painting June 16, 1890.
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