23 April 2019
The painting 'Congregation leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen' was found in 2016 after it was stolen from the museum 14 years earlier. Recently, the painting has been thoroughly examined and a conservation and restoration treatment has taken place. These are the insights.
Van Gogh painted Congregation leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen shortly after he had moved in with his parents again in Nuenen, at the beginning of 1884. He reworked it later in 1885. The painting was a gift to his ill mother. It not only shows the church his father preached in, but also bears a reference to his death. This strong biographical link gives the painting a special emotional value within the collection of the Van Gogh Museum.
Condition after its return
Congregation leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen had returned to the Van Gogh Museum in an unexpected, rather stable physical condition. However, it was decided to thoroughly examine and possibly treat the painting prior to re-integrating it together with Seascape at Scheveningen in the permanent collection. Main reason for this was that an aged, glossy and yellowed varnish on the surface interfered with the colour scheme as it was originally intended by Van Gogh.
Two painting campaigns
The painting shows a rather interesting layer build-up as Van Gogh worked on it on two occasions. He painted the initial composition at the beginning of 1884, with the church and a farmer carrying a spade in the foreground. The painting featured rather cool colours reminiscing cold winter days. In the fall of 1885, after his father’s death, Van Gogh overpainted the farmer and added groups of churchgoers in the foreground. At the same time, he changed the palette to brighter and warmer autumnal tones.
An original varnish
During the examination, the presence of an original protein containing layer, probably egg white, was verified in between the two painting campaigns from 1884 and 1885. In the same period Van Gogh had written to his brother Theo about using egg white as a medium for saturating colours in his paintings. Most of the observed phenomena disrupting the paint surface in Congregation leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen could be linked to the ageing and degradation of this material. On top of the second painting campaign a synthetic alkyd resin varnish was detected, probably applied in 1961 during a restoration treatment.
On top of the second painting campaign a synthetic alkyd resin varnish was detected. It was probably applied during a restoration treatment in 1961. This non-original layer was the cause for the undesirable glossy and yellowed surface effect, and it was therefore decided to remove it. Extensive monitored testing proved the feasibility of such a treatment without harming the original vulnerable paint surface. However, due to the solubility properties of the aged alkyd resin its removal was only possible while working with a stereomicroscope under high magnification. The original protein containing layer was not affected by the varnish removal.
Conservation and a finishing touch
Along with the varnish removal a few discoloured retouches were reduced and areas of fragile paint was consolidated. Finally the painting was given a very fine spray-varnish in order to re-saturate the darker colours especially, but without adding any gloss to the surface.
More on conservation treatment
Along with Congregation leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen, the painting Seascape at Scheveningen was examined and treated. This latter painting was seriously damaged after it was stolen from the museum. What treatment did conservation specialists at the Van Gogh Museum give this painting?