Ihor Holubizky and Brandi Lee MacDonald

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Figure 6: Untitled, Still Life: Ginger Pot and Onions

Untitled, Still Life: Ginger Pot and Onions

Vincent van Gogh (Dutch 1853-1890)

Untitled, Still Life: Ginger Pot and Onions, 1885

oil on canvas

34.5 x 49.5 cm

Gift of Herman Levy, Esq., O.B.E., 1984


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Lucretia Buijsman (later Mrs. G. W. van Dyk-Buysman) of Nuenen, the Netherlands

Private collection, Paris (according to Faille 1970, p.79)

Private collection, Great Britain (according to Hulsker 1977/80, p.204)

Purchased from Marlborough Fine Art Ltd., London, England, May, 1959

Herman Levy, Esq., O.B.E.


Exhibition History

XIX and XX Century European Masters, Marlborough, London, Summer 1958, illus. p. 98, no. 73

The Herman H. Levy Collection, McMaster Museum of Art, Togo Salmon Gallery, 11 June 1994 – 9 November 2006

Great Masters Series: Vincent van Gogh, Art Gallery of Hamilton, 28 May – 23 September 2006

Synesthesia: Art and the Mind, McMaster Museum of Art, Tomlinson Gallery, 18 September – 20 December 2008

Oil Cloth Lunch, and other reasons to be cheerful, McMaster Museum of Art, 12 March – 14 August 2010

The World is An Apple: The Still Lifes of Paul Cézanne, Art Gallery of Hamilton, 1 November 2014 – 8 February 2015

The ongoing scholarly interest and persistent mythologizing in popular culture, homage, and appropriations in modern and contemporary art (and the resulting commercialism and competition for commerce), invites high attention to any Vincent van Gogh painting of his brief mature, and highly scrutinized, period: from early 1884—when he lived and worked in Neunen, and then in Paris, Arles,[i] and Auvers-sur-Oise (27 kilometres from Paris) respectively—to his purported suicide-death on July 27 or 28, 1890, at age 37.[ii] As Van Gogh scholar Tsukasa Kōdera noted, “Van Gogh has been cast in numerous roles—misunderstood genius, peintre maudit, paradigm of the modern artist, saint, martyr, personification of fraternal love, man of flames, man of flesh and blood…but in fact it is impossible for any study or discussion of an artist to be completely free of myth. There is no meta-discourse.”[iii]

The McMaster work was painted in Neunen, a small town in the Netherlands (10 kilometres east of the city of Eindhoven) where Van Gogh’s parents were then living. He relocated there in December 1883,[iv] and it is generally agreed that this move led to Van Gogh’s first sustained period of work, as he was able to devote himself entirely to painting. These works are characterized by a somber palette, although Van Gogh was very concerned with colour theories.[v] They are also distinguished by his “immersion” in the rural and humble subject matter, the landscape and environs of Neunen, portraits of peasants and scenes of them working in the field, and numerous still-life compositions.[vi]

Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters, regarded as his first major work, was painted in April and May 1885. During the summer of 1885 his primary subjects were peasants. In September and October of that year, Van Gogh painted still lifes exclusively: twenty-three works including the McMaster painting, which has been dated to September 1885. A companion work to the McMaster painting is Untitled, Still Life with Ginger Jar and Fruit.[vii]

Analysis of the McMaster still life for this exhibition revealed one previously unexamined aspect of the painting: was there a painting underneath? Imaging data led to a strong possibility of this (Figs. X and X), although not clear enough to determine “the what” underneath. The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam initiated an extensive research and analysis project in 2005 that confirmed that the artist recycled canvases for financial reasons and the drive to make new work, a practice that began with his time in Neunen.[viii] Ten still-life paintings from the September to October 1885 period were examined—the dating of the McMaster painting “sits” within that group—revealing nine identifiable compositions underneath; the tenth is described as “unknown subject (scraped remains).”[ix]

The significance of Van Gogh’s time in Neunen is underscored by the inclusion of The Potato Eaters and five other Neunen works in the first major Van Gogh retrospective held in Amsterdam in late 1892 and early 1893.[x] In exploring Van Gogh’s legacy, scholars Walther and Metzger stated that “Van Gogh’s peculiar contribution…was to free…‘perceptible manifestations’ from concrete representation [in other words, an adherence to the ‘enchantment of the eye’ and the ‘beautiful’ composition]. Of course he painted peasants, weavers, and the wide variety of everyday scenes—but what is more important is the staggering simplicity of his paintings.”[xi]

[i] From early May to October 1889, Van Gogh was at the asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, thirty-two kilometres from Arles, and then again in February 1890.

[ii] An examination of this mythologizing topic is examined in Griselda Pollock, “History Versus Mythology, Reading Van Gogh for Dutchness” in Vincent Everywhere, ed. Margaret Schavemaker and Rachel Esner (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2010), 49–60.

[iii] Tsukasa Kōdera, introduction to The Mythology of Vincent van Gogh (Philadelphia: John Benjamin Publishing Company, 1993), 15–16. One aspect of “knowing” Van Gogh, as if to “diagnose creativity,” have been speculations on his “illnesses,” which are presented in a tabular format—from psychiatric diagnoses (such as schizophrenia, manic depression, and character and behvioural aberrations) to neurological disorders and somatic conditions (such as venereal disease, alcohol poisoning, and eye disease)—on pp. 341–42.

[iv] Van Gogh moved six times from January 1879 prior to his arrival in Neunen in 1883.

[v] Jan Hulsker, The Complete Van Gogh: Paintings, Drawings, Sketches (New York: H.N. Abrams, 1980): 121–22.

[vi] Ingo F. Walther and Rainer Metzger, “An Artist Pure and Simple, The First Year” in Vincent Van Gogh: The Complete Paintings, vol. 1 (Cologne: Taschen, 1993), 106–09.

[vii] Still Life with Ginger Jar and Fruit, September 1885. See Hulsker, The Complete Van Gogh, 923, 204; illustrated 205. Titled Still Life with Ginger Jar and Apples in Walther and Metzger, “An Artist Pure and Simple,” 126. Sold at Sotheby’s [New York?] 26 April 1972; present whereabouts unknown. Walther and Metzger, 126.

[viii] Ella Hendriks, Luc Megens, and Muriel Geldof, “Van Gogh’s Recycled Works” in Van Gogh’s Studio Practice (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 306–29.

[ix] Ibid., 327.

[x] Rachel Esner, “Beyond Dutch: Van Gogh’s Early Critical Reception 1890–1915” in Vincent Everywhere, ed. Rachel Esner and Margaret Schavemaker (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2010), 139.

[xi] Walther and Metzger, “A Revolution in Art: Modernism,” in Vincent Van Gogh: The Complete Paintings, vol. 2, 696.