Small grasshopper found, hidden in a Van Gogh painting, 128 years later

You can’t see the grasshopper in this image of Vincent van Gogh’s “Olive trees,” but it is there.

(With thanks to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art )

There is a secret hidden in a Vincent van Gogh painting.

It remained undetected for 128 years, until Maria Schafer, a paintings conservator at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Missouri, discovered that with the aid of a surgical microscope — embedded in the paint in the foreground of van Gogh’s 1889 work “Olive Trees” are the remains of a small grasshopper.

“I came across what I first thought was the impression of a small leaf,” Schafer told Live Science. “But when I discovered that it was in fact a little bug.”

Curators such as Schafer can be as detectives, uncovering clues in their careful study of the works of art hat to reveal new details about their origin and context. Much of the history of the artists worked outdoors, Schaefer said, especially in the 19th century. [11 Hidden Secrets in Famous Works of Art]

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“You can find sand in the paint of the beach scenes, plant material in the forest scenes,” said Schafer.

Researchers already knew that van Gogh, in particular, liked to paint, while outside — and occasionally turned with a quirky bug — thanks to a letter he wrote to his brother Theo in 1885, according to a museum press release:

“But just go and sit outside, painting on the spot!” the letter reads. “Then all sorts of things, such as the following will happen – should I have picked up a good hundred flies and more from the 4 canvases that you will get, not to mention the sand and dust … when one carries them across the heath and through the hedges for a few hours, in the odd branch or two scrapes over them…”

Still, Schafer hoped that further study of Olive trees” could reveal new details about the context in which it was painted.

“We try to apply scientific methods, [to the understanding of art in the museum],” she said.

Schafer contacted Michael Angel, a professor of paleoentomology at the University of Kansas and an associate at the American Museum of Natural History, to see what he could gather from her discovery — including, perhaps, the season in which it was painted.

But there was one problem: The beast remains incomplete. The thorax and abdomen, which perhaps contained the remains of the last meal — which, in turn, would have offered clues to the season in which it died — were missing. Nor was there any sign that the insect struggling to escape the sticky paint.

Schafer said she suspects that the dead grasshopper was already on van Gogh’s brush when he pressed him in his characteristically thickly painted “Olive trees.” [Gallery: 5 Time Science-Inspired Art]

The discovery itself may not be very important in the strict scientific terms, Schafer said, but she is glad that it led to interest of the general public, museum visitors crowding the painting to hunt for spots of the grasshopper’s remains.

Also offers the public a glimpse into the work of conservators. Schafer and her colleagues work in the near silence, she said, with painting and photography curators gathered in the same room. An array of equipment, some of it borrowed from other precision occupations, sitting on their desk. The microscope arm comes down on the table, and the curators to fit his position as they move about their subjects.

“Under the microscope, you can really see the paint in a three-dimensional way,” said Schafer.

Van Gogh’s thick curls, in particular, come to life, she added.

While Schafer said they are pleased with the attention the discovery has received, a grasshopper is far from being the most exciting thing a conservator has discovered in the art; the real drama is in finding traces of an old painting behind the current paint on a canvas, or signs of changes. (In 2008, scientists announced that they had discovered the portrait of a woman hidden beneath van Gogh’s “field of grass” painting.)

Still, she is pleased with the attention it brought to “Olive trees.”

“If we can bind something to the artist and their work, we are happy,” she said.

Originally published on Live Science.

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