Recently discovered bookmark by Van Gogh on display for the first time

A thin vertical strip of paper featuring three early sketches of peasants by Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) has been concealed inside a book for over 135 years.

The strip of paper, which fits the exact measurements of the book inside which it was found, is an unconventional format for Van Gogh. Teio Meedendorp, a senior researcher at the Van Gogh Museum, told The Art Newspaper that: “I believe that it was made as a bookmark. It would be curious to draw three sketches in this configuration unless there was a reason, and it fits snugly inside the book in which it was found.” It is a highly exciting discovery: not only is it an interesting format, but it is also extremely early for Van Gogh. Meedendorp also emphasises its rarity, stating: “relatively very few drawings from Van Gogh’s early period survive, although we know he must have made hundreds”. Martin Bailey, a Van Gogh expert, also highlighted its importance, telling Artnet News that, “they are sketchy and slightly crude works, but are nevertheless highly revealing.”

The book in which the sheet of sketches was found is a copy of Emile Erckmann and Alexandre Chatrian’s Histoire d’un Paysan, 1789-1815. The book is an illustrated novel, which tells the story of the French Revolution through the perspective of an Alsace peasant. In 1883, Van Gogh sent this book to his friend and fellow artist Anthon van Rappard (1858-1892), including a note saying: “I do think you’ll find Erckmann-Chatrian beautiful.” A year later Rappard came to visit Van Gogh in Nuenen and Van Gogh drew a large portrait of his friend. However, their friendship subsequently ended in 1885 when Van Rappard publicly criticised Van Gogh’s only lithograph of his painting The Potato Eaters(1885). In anger at his former friend, Van Gogh sliced the portrait he had made of him in half – the bottom half is now lost, yet surprisingly the top half has survived and is also in the collection of Van Gogh Museum.

The book remained with Van Rappard until his premature death at the age of 33 in 1892. His wife, Henriette held onto it, and it was passed down in her family until 2019, when it entered the collection of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Van Gogh experts have dated the bookmark, on both a stylistic and compositional basis, to 1881, when Van Gogh was living with his parents in the village of Etten and was particularly interested in depicting local peasants. At this time, Van Gogh was just beginning his career as an artist, and was particularly influenced by artists of the Realism art movement and the Barbizon school, such as Jean-François Millet (1814-1875), who was known for his paintings of peasant farmers.

The never-before-seen work has been reproduced for the first time last week in The Art Newspaper, and is on display until 12th September at the Van Gogh Museum in their “Here to Stay” exhibition of recent acquisitions.

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