Missouri museum finds grasshopper in 128-year-old van Gogh painting

By Ben Hooper Contact the Author   |  Nov. 8, 2017 at 10:02 AM
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Nov. 8 (UPI) -- Officials at a Missouri museum said they looked at a 128-year-old van Gogh painting and made an unusual discovery -- a grasshopper embedded in the paint.

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City said Paintings Conservator Mary Schafer was using magnification to examine Olive Trees, an 1889 painting by Vincent van Gogh, when she discovered the remains of the grasshopper, which was missing its thorax and abdomen.

"Van Gogh worked outside in the elements, and we know that he, like other plein air artists, dealt with wind and dust, grass and trees, and flies and grasshoppers," Museum Director Julian Zugazagoitia said.

Van Gogh, who committed suicide about a year after finishing Olive Trees in St. Remy, France, detailed the difficulties presented in working outside in an 1885 letter to his brother, Theo.

A Kansas City, Mo., museum said a conservator examining Vincent van Gogh's 1889 painting Olive Trees discovered a previously unknown grasshopper embedded in the paint. Image courtesy of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

"But just go and sit outdoors, painting on the spot itself! Then all sorts of things like the following happen -- I must have picked up a good hundred flies and more off the 4 canvases that you'll be getting, not to mention dust and sand ... when one carries them across the heath and through hedgerows for a few hours, the odd branch or two scrapes across them," the artist wrote.

Schafer said she hoped the insect could answer some unresolved questions about the painting.

"It is not unusual to find insects or plant material in a painting that was completed outdoors," Schafer said. "But in this case, we were curious if the grasshopper could be used to identify the particular season in which this work was painted."

Paleo-entomologist Michael S. Engel pointed out there were no signs of movement in the surrounding paint, indicating the grasshopper was already dead when it ended up on the canvas. He said the insect remains could not be used to pinpoint the season when van Gogh created Olive Trees.

"Olive Trees is a beloved painting at the Nelson-Atkins, and this scientific study only adds to our understanding of its richness," Zugazagoitia said.

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