Stolen in a mysterious art heist and missing for over a decade, some of van Gogh’s most personal and faith-filled artwork has been found.
Vincent van Gogh's "Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen," one of the two Van Gogh paintings that were stolen from the Van Gogh Museum in the early hours of December 7, 2002. Handout | Getty Images
In 2002, a bizarrely low-tech art heist occurred at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. In the dead of night, two stealthy thieves completely bypassed security by using a ladder to access the roof, smashing a high window, and shimmying down on a rope to swipe two pieces of art. Both works were painted by the museum’s namesake, Vincent Van Gogh. The first was a picture of a small church in the woods called “Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen.” The second was “Seascape at Scheveningen,” one of only two seascapes van Gogh ever painted. The theft shocked the art world, who thought the museum was incredibly secure. Eventually, two men were arrested for the robbery, but the whereabouts of the paintings remained a mystery. Until late last week.
Over the past 14 years, the two paintings somehow traveled across Europe, jetsetting from the Netherlands down to Italy. The works of art were an unexpected find while police were investigating the house of an alleged mafia boss near Naples. A member of the Art Loss Register suggested that while these kinds of thefts are rare, such artistic treasures are simply too recognizable to be sold on the black market. Instead, it seems they are quietly passed from owner to owner, often squirreled away where only the luckiest houseguests may catch a glimpse of them. Fortunately, these two van Gogh paintings were recovered without much damage.
While you’ve probably heard of the famous Dutch Impressionist Vincent van Gogh, well-known for an anecdote about cutting off part of his ear and for creating works like “Starry Night,” you probably haven’t heard of these two particular paintings before. Still, both pieces of art that were recovered are considered to be priceless, and the church painting in particular may have had great personal meaning for van Gogh.
The painting, entitled “Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen” is said to have been painted for van Gogh’s mother, Anna Cornelia Carbentus, while she was healing from a broken thighbone. The painting depicts the family’s local church where van Gogh’s father, Theodorus van Gogh, was a minister in the Brabant village community. So we can assume it’s a place where van Gogh and his family spent a lot of time together. But a statement released by the Vincent van Gogh Museum said that the artist had even deeper personal and emotional ties to the painting:
“In 1885, after his father’s death, Van Gogh reworked the painting and added the churchgoers in the foreground, among them a few women in shawls worn in times of mourning. This may be a reference to his father’s death. The strong biographical undertones make this a work of great emotional value.”
Especially because van Gogh’s relationship with his father wasn’t always a smooth one. For van Gogh’s father, Theodorus, being a part of the ministry was a lifelong vocation. He completed his theology studies in 1849 and spent his career at a handful of small churches in rural villages. Theodorus’ father, van Gogh’s grandfather, had also been a pastor, so you could almost say that religion was the family trade. Vincent van Gogh did try to follow in their footsteps, spending 18 months as a preacher and evangelist to coal-miners in Borinage, Belgium, but he struggled with his faith.
Eventually, he leaned into a different calling: the arts. Van Gogh’s mother, Anna, who was always filling sketchbooks with her own drawings, encouraged her son’s talents. But what mother ever imagines her child will one day become a world-famous artist? It’s a lofty goal that even Vincent van Gogh himself—as renowned as he is today—never achieved during his own lifetime.
Van Gogh died without a penny to his name. According to even the most generous estimates, the painter never sold more than a couple of his now-priceless works before his time on Earth came to an end. Almost prophetically, he once said, “I can’t change the fact that my paintings don’t sell. But the time will come when people will recognize that they are worth more than the value of the paints used in the picture.” Now, of course, van Gogh is one of the most influential painters in art history. That’s nothing to say of his work’s popularity. Postcards, tote bags, and even umbrellas featuring his “Starry Night” painting are everywhere.
Would van Gogh’s success as an artist have been different if he hadn’t first worked as a preacher? Maybe, but then he might not have had the emotional and spiritual experience that later informed his work.
“His formation really was in the Borinage,” said Sjraar van Heugten, former head of collections at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, who curated the exhibition, in an interview with The New York Times. “Those people that he wanted to preach to now became his subject, and that’s something that he perseveres with in the rest of his career.” From then on, van Gogh’s work took on a pastoral vibe, even if it wasn’t always a literal interpretation of religious themes.
“He was very quick to adopt certain motifs and certain ideas he’d develop throughout the rest of his life,” said van Heugten. “But it’s clear that from the very beginning his paintings and his work is meant to bring consolation to people, to give them moments of emotion and rest.”
MORE TO READ: van Gogh’s search for faith and home
That sort of consoling mood is also present in the other recovered stolen painting, “Seascape at Scheveningen.” It’s a soothing piece with muted colors. The ship has made it home after the storm—just like these two oil paintings have finally found their way to safety in the hands of their home museum, as well. Though there is no official date for when the artwork will be hung back on the gallery wall, people are sure to flock to them once they become available for public viewing again. Then they can gaze on van Gogh’s quiet, faithful brushstrokes once more.
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