Is this Van Gogh drawing real or fake?

In 2013, an art historian was given a notebook containing 65 drawings believed to be made by Van Gogh during his time spent in Provence. As the art historian began the painstaking process of authenticating the works over the past three years, a story about the sketchbook started to take shape. It was, in fact, an old-fashioned business ledger, that was believed to have been given to Van Gogh in May 1888 by the owners of a café in Arles, where he was temporarily living. The blank pages were ideal for use as an artist's sketchbook. It was suggested that when Van Gogh was in the hospital after cutting off part of his ear, a doctor tending to him returned the sketchbook to the café owners. This aspect of the story comes from a small notebook that had also belonged to the café, documenting daily activities. It contained an entry for May 20, 1890 which stated that a Dr. Felix Rey had returned a book of drawings, along with some empty olive jars and towels, to the café owners on behalf of Van Gogh. It was believed to have been then mixed in with other business ledgers and forgotten. Sounds like a good story, right? Scroll down for more ...

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Here's one of the sketches from the "found" sketchbook ... take a good look and see what observations you make. Then I'll share with you some of the things I notice about this drawing.

A drawing of Van Gogh believed by some to be authentic and by the artist himself

First of all, let's bring the story up to date. The drawings were published by the art historian as a book titled "The Lost Arles Sketchbook" in mid-November, 2016. However, soon after the publication of the book, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam said they had been aware of the sketchbook for some time (as early as 2008) and, based on "high-quality photographs sent to them of 56 of the 65 drawings," concluded they are imitations of Van Gogh sketches. The statement, which outlined the museum's reasoning, called the drawings "monotonous, clumsy and spiritless." The museum's full statement on the sketchbook can be found here.

Just for the fun of it, I'm going to point out some of my own observations as to why I don't think this particular drawing is a real Van Gogh. First of all, I'm going to assume that the picture above is meant to be seen as a self-portrait. Van Gogh made several self-portraits wearing a hat like that, and since it's the image published on the cover of the book, I'm guessing the art historian believes it is a self portrait as well.

But if that's the case, it doesn't look like any other Van Gogh self-portrait that I've seen. First of all, look at the eyes in the "sketchbook version" (below left) compared to the eyes in two other Van Gogh drawings, or even any of the eyes in the painted portraits below those. The "sketchbook" eyes look different and don't have the same feel. Also look at the way Van Gogh portrays his eyebrows in his other works - usually furrowed brows, unlike the non-chalant look in the "sketchbook" version.

But here's what I think is an even-more significant detail: the "sketchbook" version shows the subject looking straight-forward, whereas all of these other Van Gogh self-portraits are at a three-quarter angle, never straight-on. I've seen some Van Gogh self-portraits that are closer to straight-on, but none like this particular drawing.

a collection of Van Gogh self portraits, including drawings and paintings

Now let's look at the style and some of the techniques shown in the "sketchbook" Van Gogh, compared to other known authentic Van Gogh drawings. The first thing that catches my attention in the "sketchbook" version is the wide array of mark-making techniques in the background. There's at least 5 or 6 different mark-making techniques included in this background: straight horizontal marks (see #1, circled below), heavy dark brown dots (#2), smaller light brown dots (#3), a series of much-thinner and reddish ink vertical lines (#4), cross-hatching on the top-left corner of the hat (#5), and so forth. But look at the other Van Gogh drawings: usually the background or sky is only dots, and not a mix of marks; when multiple styles of mark-making are present, usually they are confined to separate sections, not overlapped and mixed together like the "sketchbook" version. Look at the line on the "sketchbook" left shoulder (#6) - see where it makes a "W" and "M" all in one continuous line? It goes up and down 8 times in one continuous mark, where there is nothing like that in any of these other drawings. The other three drawings all have a sense of "tightness" or controlled composition where the "sketchbook" version seems to have different marks all over the place - a totally different feel, in my opinion.

an analysis of Van Gogh's drawing style

So, what do you think? Granted, this is just an analysis of one drawing from a sketchbook of 65 drawings, but there seem to be enough simple inconsistencies or problems with this one drawing to cast it into doubt, at least I think so. We'll have to keep an eye on this story and see how it further unfolds.

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