Revisiting “Souvenier de Mauve”

Vincent van Gogh’s recent birthday on March 30 (1853-1890) made me recall one of my first hands-on encounters with a van Gogh painting after arriving in The Netherlands in 1990. It was his wonderful spring-painting with Pink Peach Trees in Blossom, also known as Souvenier de Mauve.[1] Painted in Arles at the end of March 1888, the delicate pink flowers of the tree that emerged almost directly after the snow had melted, signalised almost a rebirth of life itself.

Vincent van Gogh, Pink Peach Trees in Blossom (Souvenir de Mauve), 1888. Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo.

However, the joy soon became overshadowed by a letter he received from his sister telling him that his cousin Anton Mauve (1838-1888), a prominent painter of the Hague School, had died. Mauve had taught Vincent to paint and he therefore decided to dedicate the Pink Peach Trees to Mauve.[2]

The painting was made in the open air, as Vincent wrote to Theo, ‘… in an orchard — ploughed lilac field, a reed fence — two pink peach trees against a glorious blue and white sky. Probably the best landscape I’ve done. Just as I brought it home I received from our sister a piece in Dutch dedicated to Mauve’s memory, with his portrait (really good, the portrait), the text poor and saying nothing — pretty etching. But something or other grabbed hold of me and made my throat tight with emotion, and I wrote on my painting

and if you think it’s good as it stands we’ll send it to Mrs Mauve in both our names.’

Letter from Vincent to his brother Theo, 1888.

In preparation for the 1990 centennial van Gogh exhibition, organised in tandem by the Van Gogh Museum and the Kröller-Müller Museum, the painting with the Pink Peach Trees needed conservation/restoration. Although in a physically stable condition, the image was marred by thick layers, even lumps, of yellowed beeswax from an earlier lining. Also fragments of the brown paper used for the facing and remains of starch-glue were stuck between the ridges of the pastose paint that Vincent had energetically applied. The aesthetics of the painting did not offer a just representation of van Gogh’s spring impression a little more than a hundred years earlier.

The removal of excessive wax, starch and paper remains on the surface of the paint was quite laborious and lasted a considerable number of weeks. Therefore, based as I was at the Mauritshuis in The Hague, I during the early months of 1990 on Monday mornings travelled to Otterlo and stayed at the local Hotel Jagersrust for three days each week. Apart from getting more than acquainted with the menu – whatever plate, the chef would always spice it with Muscat – it was a great pleasure to travel through the national park De Hoge Veluwe each morning to the gorgeously positioned Kröller-Müller Museum. Here I bent over the microscope in order to carefully clean every single cavity and ridge of paint over the entire surface of van Gogh’s painting.

In connection with preparations for upcoming exhibitions, many of van Gogh’s paintings in other museums were examined for their material composition. It became evident that several of the pigments used by the painter were not light-stable and in some cases the colours had faded to a degree that nowadays we get a distorted impression of the painter’s elaborate palette. Still sophisticated scientific studies continue to improve our understanding of the materiality of van Gogh’s paintings, helping to understand their current state and to determine appropriate strategies for preservation and display.[3]

After the cleaning of van Gogh’s Pink Peach Trees at the Kröller-Müller Museum, the contrast between the pink blossoms and the blue sky was largely recovered – although some fading of the colours had occurred. In several cases, through the microscope, in tiny craquelures of the faintly pink blossoms, one could observe a much stronger pink colour within the core of the paint. An autograph repetition of the Peach Trees, now in the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, unfortunately displays flowers that are now virtually white, although these peach blossoms too were originally vivid pink.[4]

Thanks to Vincent’s letters we know much about the pigments, or rather the tube colours, he ordered from his brother Theo in Paris. It may be valuable to recall that the notion ‘tube paint’ was quite new at the time. Invented in 1841 by the portrait painter John Goffe Rand (1801–1873), who lived and worked in Boston, London, and New York, the tube paint only became commercially available during the second half of the 19th century. Van Gogh mentions tube paint for the first time in a letter in 1882. Strong competition on the market of paint supplies could lead to experiments in paint production whereby extenders were added, and the quality of binding media was compromised in order to boost the retailer’s profit.

As mentioned, at the end of February or early March 1888, following the announcement of the death of Anton Mauve Vincent had contemplated sending the widow, Jet Mauve-Carbentus, a painting in memory of her late husband. The plans advanced slowly, but at the end of March he took action and reportedly chose his best painting, the Pink Peach Trees, and fitted it with the inscription: Souvenier de Mauve, Vincent & Theo. He wrote to his brother Theo that, when the painting was dry enough to transport, he would send it to The Hague via Paris. This happened in early May.

You may have noticed that on the painting we see the dedication and Vincent’s own name painted in a dark carmine. But contrary to what Vincent wrote to Theo, as quoted above, we do not see the continuation of the inscription, which should read ‘& Theo’.

Top: the inscription as it appears today. Below left: a macro image (the large yellow rectangle) where Theo’s name once was. Note the small remains of red.
Below right: at a larger magnification (the small yellow rectangle) diagonal rubbing marks on the surface can be seen.

We should realize that Theo was not only strongly connected to his older brother in a personal sense, but also continuously promoted Vincent’s paintings, trying in every way to  gain recognition for his work  among art circles in Paris and in The Hague . We may understand that the idea of ​​sending Souvenier de Mauve to Mauve’s widow was born  not only out of compassion for  her situation , but also in the hope that the influential Hague art dealer Hermanus Tersteeg (1845-1927) would eventually see the painting.

The explanation for Theo’s name missing on the painting seemed ambiguous at first. Did Vincent write in his letters about an intention that was never carried out? Or would Vincent himself later remove Theo’s name – maybe inspired by his brother? Neither  of these hypotheses were unanimously embraced during discussions in the nineteen-nineties, and none of my predecessors, who had treated the painting in the past, had detected any evidence of  tampering with  the inscription that could support the latter  scenario. Vincent, it was thought, must therefore have been mistaken – or never have executed the entire inscription – as intended in his letter – or – could it be that it was not Vincent who removed Theo’s name before the paint had dried?[5]

Well, having studied the paint layer meticulously under the stereomicroscope, an argument arose. Under high magnification, one could detect miniscule traces of carmine within the paint structure in the area right after Vincent’s name where the inscription ‘& Theo’ was allegedly painted. Further one could  observe some minute wear of the surface that was smoothened to a degree that no pastocity in the paint was left – as if a very finely woven cloth had been rubbed over the surface leaving traces of microscopic grooves in the surface. On a microscopic scale it almost looked comparable to car-tyres skidding over an almost dry clay ground.

Would this indeed indicate that the last part of the signature could have been removed after a little more than a month when the painting was shipped to Theo in Paris? The possibility that the removal could have been done by Theo, as a gesture to Vincent and in order to promote him, rather than Vincent himself playing any part in this matter, may be further substantiated. We must recall a letter to Theo where Vincent complains, that “…This zinc white that I’m using now doesn’t dry. If everything was dry I’d send a consignment at once.”[6]

I therefore put forward  the following  explanation of the missing name: After the news of Mauve’s death, Vincent takes his newly painted image of the Pink Peach Trees and signs it in full in dark carmine paint ‘Souvenier de Mauve, Vincent & Theo’. In May when the painting arrived by Theo he, thanks to the slow drying zinc white paint below the carmine paint of the inscription, could carefully wipe his own name away – almost without a trace.[7] A token of dedication that fully underscores Theo’s fullhearted support to his older brother in his struggle to be recognised by The Hague cultural elite.

As far as Van Gogh’s painting of the Pink peach trees is concerned, it is amusing to recall that the Danish painter Christian Vilhelm Mourier-Petersen (1858-1945), who art Van Gogh did not hold in very high esteem, painted  almost exactly the same motif. Mourier-Petersen went to Arles from around 10 October 1887 to 22 May 1888 – apart from a brief stay in Martigues at the end of March 1888. It was in mid-March 1888 that Mourier-Petersen and his colleague Dodge MacKnight (1860-1950) met Vincent in Arles. From correspondence we know that Mourier-Petersen and Van Gogh met each other frequently and we may assume that Mourier-Petersen’s painting of the luminous light peach trees is painted while standing side by side with Van Gogh.[8]

Christian Vilhelm Mourier-Petersen, Peach Trees in Blossom, 1888. The Hirschsprung Collection, Copenhagen.

Vincent writes, “I’ve made the acquaintance of a Danish artist… What he does is dry but very conscientious, and he’s still young”.[9] From his side Mourier-Petersen wrote about Vincent , a few days after their first meeting,: “Initially I considered him to be mad, but by and by I note that there is method in it.”[10] In spite of their differences,   they enjoyed each other’s company and in his letters to Theo, Vincent mentions the Danish artist several times with affection.

Mourier-Petersen left Arles and set off for Paris and Vincent persuaded Theo to allow his Danish friend to stay with him in the Rue Lepic, where Mourier-Petersen arrived on 6 June 1888. Before he left, he must have seen Vincent’s full dedication on the Pink Peach Trees – including Theo’s name.

One hundred years later, in 1990, another Dane after hours of peering through a stereomicroscope unravelled evidence of where the full inscription in carmine was once situated – and the ever so faint traces of how it was rubbed away from the almost dry paint some time after its application.

[1] Oil on canvas, 73 × 60 cm. Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, inv. KM 108.317.

[2] Anton Mauve died on 5 February. Around 30 March, in response to his death, Van Gogh painted Pink Peach Trees (‘Souvenir de Mauve’) and decided to give it to Mauve’s widow, Jet Mauve-Carbentus. See letter 590. All references to letters are from: Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten, Nienke Bakker (eds.) (2009), Vincent van Gogh – The Letters:

[3] For recent studies see: Ella Hendriks & Marije Vellekoop (eds.), “Van Gogh’s Sunflowers Illuminated: Art Meets Science”, in Van Gogh Museum Studies, (Amsterdam University Press/Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 2019). For van Gogh’s palette see: M. Geldof, A.N. Proaño Gaibor, F. Ligterink et al. “Reconstructing Van Gogh’s palette to determine the optical characteristics of his paints”, in Herit Sci 6,17 (2018). On the consequences of colour change for conservation of Van Gogh’s works, see:  Ella Hendriks, “’Paintings fade like flowers’: consequences of colour change in paintings by Vincent van Gogh”, in Proceedings of the ICON paintings group conference, Appearances and Reality: Examining Colour Change in Paintings, Tate Britain, 9 October 2015 (Archetype, London, 2016), pp. 39-51. I am grateful to Ella Hendriks for references and a critical review of my text.

[4] See part II “Van Gogh’s Triptych of Orchards in Blossom”, in Cornelia Peres, Michael Hoyle and Louis van Tilborgh (eds.), “Technical and Art-Historical Studies on Works by Van Gogh and Gaguin”, A Closer Look, Cahier Vincent 3 (Waanders, Zwolle,1991).

[5] See cat. Otterlo 2003, The paintings of Vincent van Gogh in the collection of the Kröller-Müller Museum, by Jos ten Berge et al., pp. 212-213.

[6] In letter 591 to Theo van Gogh. Arles, on or about Sunday, 1 April 1888.

[7] Vincent suggest this possibility in relation to another dedication on a painting meant for Tersteeg, where he wrote to Theo, that “…you can scrape off the dedication“. Letter 608, Arles, Thursday, 10 May 1888

[8] Peach Trees in Blossom. Arles, 1888. Oil on canvas, 55,2 × 45 cm. The Hirschsprung Collection, inv. nr. 407.

[9] In letter 584 to Theo van Gogh. Arles, Saturday, 10 March 1888.

[10] H. Larsson, Flames from the south. The introduction of Vincent van Gogh in Sweden before 1900. Thesis. Lund 1993, pp. 14, 26.

Published by Jørgen Wadum

Jørgen Wadum is a Danish technical art historian.

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