A life imitating art

March 03, 2003|by ANDREA ROWLAND

FALLING WATERS - Local artist Arnold Smith has re-created a never-before-seen painting by the late Dutch master Vincent van Gogh - a possible first in the art world. Now it's up to art experts to prove him wrong - or right.

Using a technique he calls "forensic art," Smith pieced together clues found in the oil stain on the back of an original van Gogh canvas to reconstruct what he believes to be a painting van Gogh "might have started, messed up and scraped off the canvas while it was still wet," he said. He found the image that is the basis for his work on an Internet site.

A self-taught artist of Dutch ancestry, Smith has studied the works and writings of van Gogh - a talented but temperamental artist notorious for chopping off his left earlobe in a fit of madness - since he was a child, he said.


"I've always had a book about him under my arm," said Smith, 37, of Falling Waters.

Van Gogh produced nearly 900 paintings and more than 1,000 drawings during the 10 years preceding his suicide in 1890, and wrote many letters that contained sketches and ideas for paintings.

In April 2002, Smith began using clues from these letters and from van Gogh's art to reconstruct paintings that were lost or abandoned and to create paintings van Gogh planned but never produced, he said.

Smith mimicked van Gogh's distinctive postimpressionist painting style - striking color, course brushwork, contoured forms and sparing use of shadow - to create 11 paintings based upon van Gogh's writings, sketches and fragments of his paintings.

Never done before

"I didn't want the paintings to look like weak copies," Smith said, pointing out details in his colorful series. "They are not copies because they have never been done before."

Smith produced a painting of Christ with an angel in an olive grove based upon details in a July 1888 letter from van Gogh to his brother, Theo:

"I have scraped off a big painted study, an olive garden, with a figure of Christ in blue and orange, and an angel in yellow. Red earth, hills green and blue, olive trees with violet and carmine trunks, and green-grey and blue foliage. A citron-yellow sky. I scraped it off because I tell myself that I must not do figures of that importance without models."

Smith used the hues van Gogh described and studied examples of olive trees in the master's other works to create the painting - his favorite in the series, he said.

"That's the one I brought out of nowhere," Smith said.

Most of his other van Gogh reconstructions were based upon more tangible clues. Smith used a van Gogh drawing to create the composition, and the position of the sun in the sketch and pigments common to van Gogh's palette at the time to determine the color scheme, in his daytime version of the great artist's "Starry Night over the Rhone," he said.

It was Smith's fall 2002 discovery of a mismatched oil stain on the back of van Gogh's "Railway Carriages" - painted in Arles, France, in 1888 - that prompted him to reconstruct what he believes was the original painting underneath the work on display at the Angladon Museum in Avignon, France, he said.

The Van Gogh enthusiast turned to the Internet to find a photograph of the back of a van Gogh oil painting so he could learn more about the artist's work. He found what he was looking for on the Web site of photographer Serge Briez, who had photographed "Railway Carriages" at the museum.

"At first glance it just looked like the dirty back of a painting, but then I began to see something very strange - there seemed to be a bleed-through of oil, but the stain on the back did not seem to match the painting on the front," Smith said. "I thought my eyes were fooling me, but the more I looked, the more I saw that it was a different painting."

Computer technology

Smith used computer technology to confirm his suspicion, he said.

He enhanced the color contrast in the oil stain's digital image - making the darks darker and the lights lighter - to better define the shapes on the back of the painting. A locomotive, smoke stack and several human figures - none of which appear in "Railway Carriages" - became clearer to Smith as he sharpened the color contrast, he said.

"I was astonished at what I found. It was an entirely new painting," Smith said. "It is subjective, but once you see that the oil bleed-through on the back of the canvas doesn't match the image on the front, it's just a matter of bringing (the image in the oil stain) out."

Smith traced over the lines in the emerging image to create a sketch and used a photo he found of a European locomotive such as one that would have been used in Arles in 1888 to fill in fuzzy details, he said.

He chose colors common on van Gogh's palette to create the finished painting, he said.

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