From The Editors Science

Van Gogh’s Classic “Olive Trees” Painting Has a 128-Year-Old Grasshopper Carcass Stuck To It

Mary Schafer, a conservator at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, has stumbled upon an unexpected discovery while taking a close look at Dutch Post-Impressionist painter Van Gogh’s classic 1889 painting, “Olive Trees.”

It was part of an ongoing scientific study at the Museum where curators, conservators, and outside scientists have been trying to better understand a collection of 104 French paintings and pastels with the help of several scientific tools such as ultraviolet rays, x-rays, microscope, and by taking minuscule samples of the work.

A tiny grasshopper carcass, stuck to the lower foreground of the 128-year-old masterpiece, was definitely not on Schafer’ list of expected findings.

“I was mainly trying to understand the different layers of the painting and how it was constructed, and that’s how I came upon part of the body of this little grasshopper,” Schafer told AFP.

“The fact that we have this little surprise of a grasshopper is a fun way to have a new look at a Van Gogh,” the Kansas conservator added.

Invisible to the naked eye, the incomplete ’hopper carcass was found under a magnifying glass.

“It is not unusual to find insects or plant material in a painting that was completed outdoors,” she explained. “But in this case, we were curious if the grasshopper could be used to identify the particular season in which this work was painted.”


For a scientific opinion on the critter, the team took the help of New York’s American Museum of Natural History experts, who noticed the 128-year-old insect’s missing thorax and abdomen.

And the fact that they did not detect any disturbance, or signs of struggle, in the immediately surrounding paint, indicates that the grasshopper was dead before it hit Van Gogh’s canvass.

The researchers were also hoping to be able to tell, from studying the carcass, what season the painting is from but, unfortunately, that couldn’t be established by the experts.

The master artist, who generally painted outdoors, was fully aware of such an eventuality, as is evident from an 1885 letter he wrote to his brother which says, “…All sorts of things like the following happen-I must have picked up a good hundred flies and more off the four canvases that you’ll be getting.”

“Seascape near Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer” (1888), another Van Gogh painting now housed in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, has traces of sand in it – believed to have come from a Mediterranean beach where Van Gogh created the masterpiece.

The Olive Tree in question is at least one of 18 olive tree paintings most of which were painted in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, where Van Gogh is believed to have voluntarily lived in an asylum, painting its gardens as well as olive and cypress trees, wheatfields and other features of the landscape when allowed to venture outside the asylum’s enclosure.

Van Gogh lived at the asylum from May 1889 to May 1890 and died in July 1890 in Auvers-sur-Oise from a gunshot wound. It was never established if his death was suicide or murder.

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