Lonely Planet Writer

A grasshopper discovered embedded in a Van Gogh painting for 128 years

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City has made one of the most bizarre discoveries in art; their Vincent van Gogh’s Olive Trees canvas has an insect lodged in the oil paint, and it has been there for more than a century.

Vincent Van Gogh’s oil on canvas Olive Trees from 1889. Image by Courtesy: Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City

Conservator Mary Schafer discovered the insect hiding when doing research for the museum’s catalogue. “Through the course of the research we examine every single painting,” explained curator Aimee Marcereau DeGalan, “they go up to the conservation lab for in-depth study. When Mary Schafer was looking at it under the microscope she first thought it was leaf matter, but when she refocused the lens it took the shape of something different.”

Local paleontologist Dr. Michael Engle from the University of Kansas examined the species and identified it as a grasshopper. “I’ve been told you can’t see it with the naked eye, but if you were looking at the painting there’s a tree at the far right and the shadow – that tree’s cast extends to the middle of the picture, the grasshopper is located in the shadow of the tree to the far right.”

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Since the discovery was publicised there have been crowds at the gallery trying to spot the mysterious creature contained in the painting. “We’ve blown up an image of the painting with a circle showing where the grasshopper is, and we may have to have an extra guard and extra signs. The frenzy has begun,” said DeGalan. Van Gogh was a prolific letter writer. “He’s written several where he’s lamenting elements, particularly about bugs,” explained DeGalan, “in one letter he writes to his brother he says ‘I must have picked out a hundred flies or more from the canvases you are about to get’”.

This image, taken through a microscope, captures the grasshopper embedded in the paint of Olive Trees. Image by Nelson Atkins Museum

The Dutch impressionist famously worked en plein air, outdoors among the elements. The Olive Trees collection was painted in southern France. After working, he would carry his easel and canvases home, walking through tall grass. “This bug, which was dead when it hit the paint, could have been added when he was carrying his canvases,” theorised DeGalan. The museum does know the paint was still wet when the bug hit the canvas, and that there is no brush stroke over it. “This discovery is so exciting because it takes us to that exact time, place and moment that he painted this canvas,” said DeGalan, “It humanises this artist who has become almost mythical.”

Van Gogh painted his series of Olive Trees canvases between May and November in 1889, the gallery hoped the grasshopper would help them indicate the exact season he was working in, but there wasn’t enough of the insect remaining to determine this information. “There’s more research to be done, we feel like this is the tip of the iceberg,” said DeGalan, “it’s a virtual portal to allow us to understand how the artist really worked.”

Whether this new discovery has added value to the painting remains to be seen, explained DeGalan; “it’s added to the interest of the painting, whether that creates more value, that’s up to the market. Knowing more about it and making our results known does increase people’s curiosity and hunger for his work”. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art has had this particular Olive Trees canvas in its permanent collection since 1932, currently on show it will remain one of the main attractions at the museum going forward.