After two years of research, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has confirmed that Sunset at Montmajour really is the work of Vincent Van Gogh. The painting is believed to have been executed by the tortured artist in 1888 and shows "dusk in the hilly landscape of Montmajour, in Provence, with wheat fields and the ruins of a Benedictine Abbey in the background," according to The New York Times.
"What makes this even more exceptional is that this is a transition work in his oeuvre, and moreover, a large painting from a period that is considered by many to be the culmination of his artistic achievement, his period in Arles in the south of France," museum officials said of the momentous discovery.
Van Gogh's time at Arles (which began in February 1888) is notable for its productivity: in that bucolic village, he created three of his best-known paintings: Sunflowers, The Yellow House, and The Bedroom. In the crudest of pop culture terms, the discovery is not unlike finding a Michael Jackson demo from his Thriller days—a possible masterpiece found during the peak of the artist's career.
Sunset, a sweeping, hilly landscape punctuated by Van Gogh's thick brushstrokes, was actually sitting in a collector's attic for a couple of years. The museum "did not disclose full details of how the painting had been recovered, but said that it had been owned by a Norwegian man who had been told it was not by Van Gogh, so he put it in the attic," The Guardian reported. As the Daily Beast's Blake Gopnick points out, officials first denied the painting was a Van Gogh back in 1908 and in 1991. "The painting has been in the private collection of a family for several years and [Van Gogh Museum Axel] Rüger said that because of privacy concerns, he couldn’t release any more information about the owners," The Times explained.
In confirming the work, researchers looked at the style, painting materials, and the context. Part of that context included studying Van Gogh's letters from that period. "In a letter dated July 1888, he said that he’d been to Montmajour at least 50 times 'to see the view over the plain'" The Times explained.
But it turns out he was displeased with the outcome. "Van Gogh referred to the work in two other letters in the same summer it was painted, but he said he considered it a failure in several respects," The Guardian reported.
This "failure" will go on display on September 24.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.