They're home again!
In 2002, two paintings were stolen from the Van Gogh Museum. They were missing for 14 years. In September 2016, we received the news we'd hardly dared to hope for any longer: the paintings had been found. Their return has been cause for great joy at the museum and elsewhere.
This sea view is one of Vincent's earliest paintings. Before that time he had hardly painted anything – only a few still lifes under the supervision of the artist Anton Mauve.
Yet even this early painting shows Van Gogh's distinctive style. If you look closely, you can see the vigorous brushwork for which he would become so famous.
When painting the waves, Vincent used a vigorous brushstroke and a good deal of paint (impasto technique). That is especially clear under raking light (light from the side).
This loose, vigorous brushwork, so characteristic of Vincent, can also be found in his later work.
Although Vincent was just starting out as a painter, he understood that a colour is influenced by the surrounding colours. Take a look at the seagulls in this painting. Some look white against the dark clouds, while others are black against the white crests of the waves.
Seagulls look white against the dark background
Vincent painted View of the Sea at Scheveningen during a summer storm on the beach. The wind made it difficult to work. Sand blew onto the canvas and mixed with the paint.
Vincent was impressed by the effect of the wind on the waves: like 'furrows of ploughed land', he wrote to his brother Theo.
It was hard for Vincent to paint in the storm: ‘The wind was so strong that I could barely stay on my feet and barely see through the clouds of sand.’ The sand also blew into his paint. In the X-ray image, you can see grains of sand everywhere.
Vincent was not the only person drawn to what he described as a 'nasty little storm'. There are many people walking on the beach. In the sea, a shrimp boat is moored.
Vincent made a number of trips from his home in The Hague to the coast near the village of Scheveningen.
It’s been so beautiful at Scheveningen the last few days. (...) The waves followed each other so quickly that each pushed the other aside, and the collision between these bodies of water produced a sort of foam like drifting sand that shrouded (...) the sea in a haze.
The painting of the Reformed Church in Nuenen has a special family story. Van Gogh made it for his mother. She was confined to her bed with a broken leg, and he wanted to cheer her up.
He chose the subject with care: his father was the minister of this church.
Vincent often included small sketches in letters to his brother Theo. This was a way of showing Theo what he was painting. In this sketch we see a single figure in the centre, in front of the church.
In Vincent's pen drawing of the church, you can see a peasant with a spade in that same spot. That was how researchers discovered that Vincent had later made changes to the painting.
One unusual thing about this painting is that it's still in the original stretcher frame. Take a look at the splotches of paint on the back. That was where Van Gogh wiped his brushes off.
This picture had even greater emotional meaning because Vincent changed it after his father's death.
He painted autumn leaves on the bare winter trees and added small groups of churchgoers. Some are dressed in mourning, a telling detail.
The X-ray image shows that Vincent changed the composition. He replaced the farmer with groups of churchgoers. In the small group standing in the middle foreground, take a close look at the woman on the left.
Through her shawl the farmer's blue smock is still faintly visible, and her right hand was originally his.
In Vincent's additions, he used colours that reinforce each other, like the yellowish-orange of the autumn leaves and the blue of the trees and the church roof.
This has led researchers to conclude that he made the changes more than a year later, in the autumn of 1885. Before that time, he did not use that type of colour combination.
Fortunately Ma’s mood is very equable and content, considering her difficult situation. And she amuses herself with trifles. I recently painted the little church with the hedge and the trees for her.
In 2002, the two paintings were stolen. For 14 years they were gone without a trace. Recently they were recovered.
The Guardia di Finanza, a special Italian police force, found them in Naples during a major investigation of organized crime.
The stolen paintings are now back home again, to the great joy of the museum staff members, especially those who remember the theft.
One early morning in 2002, two men with a ladder climbed onto the roof of the museum, where they broke a window. Inside, they grabbed two paintings from the walls. Then they made off with their loot at top speed.
The criminals were later found and convicted, but the paintings remained missing for years.
Until 14 May 2017, you can view the two paintings as they were found: without frames and slightly damaged.
From mid-May onwards they'll be restored and reframed. Afterwards, they'll again have a permanent place in the museum, where everyone can see them.
They're back! It's hard to believe I can finally say that.