Answers On A Postcard: Location of Van Gogh's Final Work Found?

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Answers On A Postcard: Location of Van Gogh's Final Work Found?

Thanks to letters, eye-witness reports, and the testimony of his friend Paul Gaugin, we know a lot about the final days and weeks of the great artist Vincent van Gogh. We have insight into his frame of mind, and records of his strange behavior. We do not, however, know where he went or what he did when it was alone. We can speculate about it, and we know that he spent at least some of that time painting, but we don't know when or where he went to do it. Most people accept that 'Tree Roots' was the last significant piece of art van Gogh ever produced, but until now, we've had no idea what he based the scene on. All of that might now have changed after a new discovery; one that's based on a 110-year-old-postcard.

Wouter van der Veen, the director of the Institut van Gogh, has been looking for the real-life inspiration for the painting for many years. With very few exceptions, everything the Dutchman painted was based on something he'd seen and studied with his own eyes, and so the strange blue trees he committed to the canvas must have been based on something he'd seen in or around the part of France he was living in at the time of his demise. Amusingly and frustratingly, if Wouter is correct, it appears that everyone who's gone looking for the location in the past failed to see what's right underneath their nose. The location is now thought to be a riverbank outside Auvers-Sur-Oise, less than five hundred feet from the Auberge Ravoux Inn van Gogh was staying in when he passed away.

The postcard that prompted the discovery was printed somewhere between 1900 and 1910, and the resemblances between the scene on the picture and the painting made by van Gogh are striking. Wouter was at home in Strasbourg when he came across an image of a postcard and immediately felt confident that he'd finally solved the mystery, but wanted to get a second opinion. He contacted the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, where fellow van Gogh experts Teio Meedendorp and Louis van Tilborgh cast their own eyes over the picture. They, too, were confident that Wouter was correct in his assessment, and even produced a composite overlay image of the photograph and the painting to illustrate the point. Although van Gogh's impressionist style makes a direct comparison futile, the positioning of the trees and the bank is seamless.

The idea that ‘Tree Roots’ was van Gogh’s final work is a relatively new one in terms of general acceptance. There have been proponents for the theory for decades, but until 2019 you would find just as many van Gogh experts who insisted that ‘Wheatfield With Crows’ was the last thing he ever painted. The Van Gogh Museum finally stepped into the row last year to offer their own thoughts on the matter, and they concluded that 'Tree Roots' was the more likely candidate of the two. 'Wheatfield With Crows' appeals more to the dramatically-minded viewer because of the darkness and despair of the scene, but a letter written by Vincent himself dates that painting to July 10th, 1980, which is over two weeks before the day he took his own life. Andries Bonger (brother-in-law of Theo van Gogh) also confused the issue for a time with his insistence that ‘Farms Near Auvers’ was the painter’s final work, but this, too, was painted ‘close to the end’ as opposed to the end itself.

Based on letters that are in the possession of the museum, it seems that even Bonger changed his mind. One of his letters written after 1891 says that van Gogh had painted a 'forest scene' in the morning prior to his death. 'Tree Roots' appears to fit this description loosely. 'Tree Roots' also has the ominous distinction of being unfinished, implying that van Gogh never got the chance to come back to it. We're left with the possibility that his final brushstrokes were applied to the canvas mere hours before he took the decision to end his suffering. The position of the sun in the sky on the painting appears to back this supposition; it's where it would be in the early afternoon. The discovery made by Wouter van der Veen means that we now not only know what van Gogh's last work was, but also precisely where he was when he painted it.

The fact that this news has made headlines around the world further underlines the fascination that the public still has with van Gogh so many years after his death. That’s evidenced by the number of times he turns up in entertainment media; the Doctor Who episode ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ was watched and adored all over the world. Willem Dafoe earned many plaudits playing Vincent in the 2018 movie ‘At Eternity’s Gate.’ Even on online slots websites - which are the last place you’d expect to find fine art - you’ll find a popular game entitled simply ‘van Gogh.’ He’s not the only great painter to find his way onto the reels of Online Slots; there are multiple (equally popular) online slots based on the life and times of Leonardo da Vinci - but his presence there indicates that he’s a pop culture phenomenon. The sole purpose of the themes of online slots is to attract players. The company that designed that slot was banking on the idea that van Gogh’s name and image would draw players in, and they were right. For an artist who died long before the internet was imagined, let alone invented, that’s a remarkable achievement.

There are still mysteries about van Gogh. There are parts of his life we don't know about and may never know about. Even the pursuit of further knowledge about his final hours on Earth can sometimes feel a little ghoulish. Knowing what we now know about 'Tree Roots,' though, allows us to look at it with a different perspective. It seems that even on his last day, enduring all the torment that existed in his mind, Vincent van Gogh was still capable of seeing beauty in the world around him and recording it on canvas. Even in misery there is beauty, and that's something we would all do well to remember.

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