Van Gogh Museum suggests artist's last painting has long been misidentified
Van Gogh Museum suggests artist's last painting has long been misidentified Vincent van Gogh, "Tree Roots," 1890. (Public domain)
Van Gogh Museum suggests artist's last painting has long been misidentified
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It’s easy to see why many art lovers are quick to identify “Wheatfield With Crows” as Vincent van Gogh’s last painting. The scene screams tragedy. That's because of the darkening storm clouds. They are visible on the horizon. There are staccato brushstrokes. These are of the painting’s birds.

But there’s a big piece of evidence. It contradicts this attribution. The evidence is a letter. It was written by the Post-Impressionist. It dates the work’s creation closer to July 10, 1890. That is a full two-and-a-half weeks before he died. That's according to Zachary Small. He was reporting for Hyperallergic. Researchers from the Vincent van Gogh Museum now believe that a lesser-known canvas was actually the artist’s final work. It is in Amsterdam. It is called “Tree Roots.”

The shift in thinking isn’t an entirely new development. Bert Maes and Louis van Tilborgh are art historians. They made a convincing argument for the painting’s place in van Gogh’s works. That was in 2012. They point out that “Tree Roots” is one of only two unfinished works. It dates to the artist’s final days. Van Gogh rarely left canvases incomplete. That's according to Small.

A 2016 show further reinforced the attribution. It was staged at the Van Gogh Museum. The painting had wall text next to it. The text identified “Tree Roots” as van Gogh’s likely last work. Curators were eager to dismiss “sensational interpretations” of “Wheatfield with Crows.” They didn’t think it showed the artist’s inner strife. That was from a review for the Guardian. It was written by Jonathan Jones.

“Tree Roots” was showcased over the better-known work. The museum revealed how its “jagged strokes, expressive unreal colors…and empty areas of canvas are just as suggestive as those menacing crows.” That is what Jones argued.

Hyperallergic’s Small details several additional arguments. They are for “Tree Roots”’s true place in van Gogh’s works. Some researchers believe the artist’s style grew more disjointed. They say that happened toward the end of his life. They believe his style embraced abstraction. This was to an extent unseen in earlier works. 

The subject of “Tree Roots” is decidedly harder to figure out. That is compared to “Wheatfield With Crows.” Or “Farms Near Auvers.” It is the only other unfinished work. It was produced during van Gogh’s final months. He spent that time in the French village of Auvers-sur-Oise.

Theo van Gogh’s brother-in-law was Andries Bonger. He identified “Farms Near Auvers” as van Gogh’s last work. That was in an 1891 statement. He later highlighted an entirely different canvas. This is what he wrote: “The morning before his death, [van Gogh] had painted a sous bois.” It was “full of sun and life.”

This description fits “Tree Roots.” It breaks from the ominous tone of “Wheatfield With Crows.” It offers a palette. It is filled with a sea of subdued blues. It has green. And it has browns. 

“The roots have been laid bare. Torn from the earth. And hanging perilously.” That's according to Louis van Tilborgh. He is a senior researcher. He was co-author of a 2012 article. It was about “Tree Roots.” He offered this explanation. It was for a 2016 Van Gogh Museum video. It analyzed the painting.

The painting appears to function as a goodbye in some ways. That was Van Tilborgh's interpretation. “I have lived. Just like those tree roots. I’ve done my best. I’ve struggled with life. I’ve grown. I've had setbacks. And now is the time it ends. I am falling."

The artist's personal correspondence certainly follows Tilborgh's nature-based metaphor. “I usually try to be quite good-humoured. But my life, too, is attacked at the very root. My step also is faltering.” This is from a July 10, 1890 letter. It was to his brother Theo. And to his wife Jo.

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