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How One of Van Gogh’s Beloved Olive Tree Paintings Got Restored for a Special Exhibition

Conservator Michael Duffy gives the famous piece a meticulous refresh at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Vincent van Gogh Restoration The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Mrs. John Hay Whitney Bequest

They may not be quite as famous as his sunflowers or self-portraits, but Vincent van Gogh’s olive-tree paintings still represent an important entry in his sprawling oeuvre of more than 2,000 works. The series was completed during the penultimate year of the Dutch post-impressionist’s life, in 1889. Van Gogh was staying at a psychiatric hospital in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, having admitted himself after suffering numerous breakdowns in nearby Arles. He was given a spare room for painting and, after some time, was allowed to venture outside, which is when—in June—he came across the local olive trees.

It was not van Gogh’s first encounter with the species. While in Arles, he had written to his younger brother and longtime pen pal, Theo, that he wouldn’t dare paint the trees because they were too beautiful. He overcame that trepidation while at Saint-Rémy and completed 15 landscapes. One has been in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York since 1998. Theirs is perhaps one of the most recognizable of the bunch, as van Gogh made it as a companion to his famous Starry Night (1889), with the former presenting the scene during the day and the latter in the evening.

Now, for the first time, the series will be reunited. An October exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art will give viewers greater insight into the techniques and palette that van Gogh used as the works will be witnessed as a collection. But first, a few touch-ups are required. At MoMA, conservator Michael Duffy was tasked with restoring The Olive Trees (1889), a meticulous process that he began in summer of 2019.

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