What's a grasshopper doing in this van Gogh painting?

A dried grasshopper has been trapped in this painting, Olive Trees by Vincent van Gogh, for 128 years.
A dried grasshopper has been trapped in this painting, Olive Trees by Vincent van Gogh, for 128 years.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

WASHINGTON • A Kansas City museum, which put a Vincent van Gogh painting under the microscope, discovered an unlikely intruder.

A grasshopper had been trapped in the canvas' painterly whirls for 128 years.

Ms Mary Schafer, a conservator at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, came across the tiny dried, brown carcass in the lower foreground while studying the painting of olive groves.

"I was mainly trying to understand the different layers of the painting and how it was constructed and that's how I came upon part of the body of this little grasshopper," she said.

"The fact that we have this little surprise of a grasshopper is a fun way to have a new look at a van Gogh," she added.

The find, announced last week, reflects the Dutch post-Impressionist artist's practice of painting outdoors, where it was often windy enough to send dust, grass and insects flying.

"I must have picked up a good hundred flies and more off the four canvases that you'll be getting, not to mention dust and sand," van Gogh mused in an 1885 letter to his brother Theo.

"When one carries them across the heath and through hedgerows for a few hours, the odd branch or two scrapes across them," he noted.

However, van Gogh was not a bug killer.

Paleo-entomologist Michael Engel of the University Of Kansas told the museum's team that the grasshopper's thorax and abdomen were missing. There was no sign of movement evident in the paint around the insect, indicating that it was already dead when it landed on van Gogh's canvas.

Olive Trees is part of a series of some 18 paintings that van Gogh completed on the subject in 1889 in Saint-Remy-de-Provence, France, where he had checked himself into an asylum.

The artist - who was not considered successful in his lifetime and was viewed as a mad man - died the following year after he shot himself in the chest with a revolver.

Sand also was found in Seascape Near Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (1888), a work he is believed to have painted from the beach on the Mediterranean.

It is now held at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

The Nelson-Atkins museum made its own find as part of an effort involving curators, conservators and scientists to take a fresh look at its collection of 104 French paintings and pastels using a variety of tools, including X-rays, ultraviolet light, the microscope and taking minuscule samples of the works.

Looking at a tiny slice of Olive Trees, conservation scientist John Twilley determined that van Gogh had used a type of red lake pigment that faded over time due to light exposure.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 13, 2017, with the headline 'What's a grasshopper doing in this van Gogh painting?'. Subscribe