Nevada Museum of Art and the Controversial Study by Candlelight

Nevada Museum of Art and the Controversial Study by Candlelight
Nevada Museum of Art and the Controversial Study by Candlelight

The Nevada Museum of Art is hosting the exhibit A Real Van Gogh? An Unsolved Art World Mystery, an enigma that has plagued the master’s work for over six decades.  The painting, Study by Candlelight, was originally authenticated until Van Gogh’s own nephew convinced experts that it was a forgery.

Study by Candlelight is the only painting in the museum’s exhibit on the Dutch post-impressionist; while the collection focuses on the self-portrait, it is the uniqueness of the backstory of the piece that pulls your attention.  John Steinbeck could not have written a novel with more twists and turns than the story Van Gogh’s painting has inspired: the question of the authenticity by Van Gogh’s own nephew; the intrigue of politics and the art world, the romance involved in how the painting supposedly resurfaced after World War II; the Hollywood glamour involved when the Goetz family purchased it; and claims for the destruction and the forgery of the painting.

The Painting

The painting is that of a bearded, red-haired man, wearing a green jacket, with a brilliant circle of light behind his head in hues of yellows and oranges; to the untrained eye it looks much like many of Van Gogh’s other self-portraits.  However, approximately one-third of the way down, the canvas is unfinished and appears to have a completely out of place drawing of a Japanese kabuki character drawn in ink (it looks a bit like “The Joker” from Batman).

There is an inscription in the bottom right hand corner of the piece reading “Etude a la bougie”, French for Study by Candlelight; although the French accent marks are missing.  The piece is also signed “Vincent, 1888” just above the person’s right shoulder.

The Story

Legendary Hollywood producer and head of Universal Pictures, William Goetz, purchased Study by Candlelight for $50,000 in 1948, a painting attributed to Van Gogh.  Goetz and his wife Edith, daughter of Louis B. Mayer of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, were prolific art collectors.  In their nearly-forty-year marriage, the Goetz’ well-known collection consisted of Cézanne, Monet, Picasso, Matisse, Gaguin, and many others, primarily Impressionist and Modern art.

Originally, the painting was authenticated prior to purchase by Goetz, only to be denounced by Van Gogh’s own nephew a few years later.  Based on photographs, and his history of what appeared to be a “never-ending string of forged paintings by Van Gogh”, Willem Sandberg, Director of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam deemed Study by Candlelight a counterfeit piece.

V.W. Van Gogh, known as “The Engineer” and Van Gogh’s nephew, supported Sandberg’s assertion and the painting became the center of attention in a multi-decade battle between authentic and forged, worthless and priceless, taxed or duty-free, and politics.

Goetz was furious about the determination by Sandberg and The Engineer and sent his lawyer to Amsterdam to fight “the willful, vicious, uncalled for, and slanderous statements.”  The mayor of Amsterdam, A.J. d’Ailly, sought to distance the city from the museum and Sandberg when Goetz threated a lawsuit against the municipality of Amsterdam that oversaw the museum, Sandberg, and the Stedelijk Museum.

“The action of Mr. Sandberg with regard to paintings that have been wrongfully attributed to Van Gogh was done entirely outside his function and duties as director of the Stedelijk Museum,” d’Ailly indicated.

Nevada Museum of Art and the Controversial Study by Candlelight
“Study by Candlelight” attributed to Van Gogh Photo by Jamie Kingham, 2013. Courtesy of Nevada Museum of Art.

Nevada Museum of Art Exhibit

The Nevada Museum of Art is not trying to authenticate Study by Candlelight, nor are they showing a multitude of pieces by the master.  Instead, the museum is offering a comprehensive view of the provenance of the painting.  In art, the provenance refers to the origin of the piece; in authentication, working backwards helps experts come to a conclusion about authenticity.

The exhibit includes personal photos from the Goetz family collection, archival documents, photographs, correspondence, and press materials.  Additionally, John Twilley, a highly regarded art conservation scientist has agreed to work on the project to determine provenance.

Using the newest technology, Twilley will attempt to conclude a DNA-like profile of the painting.  He will use x-ray, infrared technology, and pigment analysis on the self-portrait.  While Twilley will not be able to conclude whether or not Van Gogh painted the controversial piece, his analyses will offer insight into the use of materials during that time period.

Northern Nevadans are a fortunate group to have this viewing opportunity; Study by Candlelight has not been seen publicly since 1988.  David Walker, Nevada Museum of Art Director, personal friend to some of the heirs, convinced the family that the museum would be the perfect venue to exhibit the comprehensive story of Study by Candlelight.

A Real Van Gogh? An Unsolved Art World Mystery is not only about the solitary piece that hangs centered on the back wall of the Hawkins Gallery, it is about the mystery surrounding the piece.  If authenticated, it could be worth upwards of tens or hundreds of millions of dollars; if not, it is only worth the treasured memories of the Goetz family.

A brief history

  • 1888 from a transcription on the painting (no longer visible) “Portrait by V. Gogh for 9 Japanese prints, Arles 8 Dec 1888”
  • 1893 from a transcription on the painting (in French – on a piece of paper on the re-lined canvas) “Painting representing the portrait of the painter Van Gogh by himself purchased 7 December 1917 at the time of another painting (representing flowers, a book, and a pipe) from an old patron of the restaurant of the Rue des Petits Carreaux which originates from his uncle to whom it was offered by a minister named Salles around 1893.”
  • 1890 Vincent Van Gogh dies after what appeared to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest
  • 1946 (There are two differing stories as to how Study by Candlelight reappeared after World War II) The more romantic and widely published account – American art importer, Reeves Lewenthal, founder, president, and chairman of Associated American Artists Gallery in New York, was driving along the French countryside when he developed a flat tire.  Upon entering a dingy little bistro near Paris, he we inside for lunch and to use the phone; he spotted a dusty painting on the wall and upon further inspection, recognized it as a Van Gogh – Study by Candlelight.
  • 1947 Jacob Baart De La Faille, Dutch art expert, authenticates the painting
  • 1948 Goetz purchases the Van Gogh painting from Lewenthal for $50,000
  • 1949 Sandberg and The Engineer determine the painting is a fake
  • 1949 De La Faille asserts the painting is real, he writes to the newspaper disputing Sandberg’s claim
  • 1949 Goetz threatens a lawsuit
  • 1949 The American Committee determines the painting is not authentic
  • 1950 The European Committee authenticated the work once again
  • 1950 The Department of Treasury determines “75% of the world’s known Van Gogh experts” had confirmed the painting was authentic and that the “painting in question is entitled to be attributed to Vincent Van Gogh”
  • 1950 Goetz attempts to import the painting back to the United States and does not expect to pay a tariff, as it was an original work of art; however, he was charged 10% of the original purchase price of $50,000 and forced to pay $5,000 to bring his painting home
  • 1950 The New York Times issued a cheeky response to the incident, “Matters of this sort, by their very nature, are never settled to everyone’s satisfaction, and very likely the art experts will go on bickering for a long time.  But most of us learned long ago never to argue with the customs man.”
  • 1970 William Goetz passes away, Sotheby’s Auction House sells sixteen pieces from the Goetz collection for $2.7 million
  • 1988 Edith Goetz passes away, Christie’s Auction House sells the remainder of the collection for $85 million, a record for a single-owner auction at that time; the Goetz family receives several pieces back from Christie’s because they were not able to authenticate them – including Study by Candlelight
  • 1994 Christie’s Auction House sought an opinion from the Museum in Amsterdam while trying to determine if they should put Study by Candlelight up for bid the response in a letter dated in 1995 included, “There is no reason to accept the painting representing Vincent Van Gogh by candlelight as an authentic work by the artist.”  However, it is important to note, the piece has still yet to be physically seen by the author of the letter or anyone at the museum in Amsterdam
  • 2005 Stephen Jordan wrote a book about Hollywood artist and forger John Decker; in it he describes Decker as explicitly forging a piece and trying to sell it to Goetz
  • 2012 The Goetz family and the Nevada Museum of Art decide to collaborate and bring the painting to the public; additionally, they begin working with Twilley to move the efforts of authenticating beyond x-rays
  • 2013 A Real Van Gogh? An Unsolved Art World Mystery opens at the Nevada Museum of Art and the painting is seen publicly for the first time in 25 years
Nevada Museum of Art and the Controversial Study by Candlelight
Photo by Jamie Kingham, 2013. Courtesy of Nevada Museum of Art.

What does it all mean?

While questions may always surround this piece, only Vincent Van Gogh, the sad man with the eyes of blue can only answer them all – Did you paint Study by Candlelight?  Did somebody else create the Japanese kabuki drawings, or was that you? Why are the colors different from others of that time period? – But he is not here any longer.

However, there is one question that never has to be answered, whether or not the painting is truly art.  The Goetz family enjoyed the piece; William and Edith hung the painting proudly in their family home amongst their other pieces of authenticated art.

The fact that Study by Candlelight was at the center of such controversy did not make them hide it in a closet, cover it with a cloth, or otherwise put it under a bed when they hosted lavish parties in their homes.  Guests such as Frank Sinatra, Mia Farrow, Elizabeth Taylor, Cary Grant, Irene Dunne, and Marilyn Monroe saw the famous portrait gracing the walls of the Goetz home.

After their parents died and museums and auction houses were not interested in an unauthenticated piece, the Goetz children took turns hosting the painting in their homes.  To them, the Van Gogh painting is part of the tapestry of their childhood, their lives, and their history. The pieces we love and enjoy are “art” because we like to look at them, enjoy them, and love them… because they are.

The controversy may never end over Study by Candlelight, just as the mystery behind Van Gogh himself will always fascinate art lovers, but the intrigue over the story is as fascinating as the painting.  It will be on display at the Nevada Museum of Art until August 25.

By Dawn Cranfield

US News Special Correspondent

Nevada Museum of Art