As It Happens

Can you spot the dead grasshopper in this Vincent van Gogh painting?

November 09, 2017

Vincent van Gogh's painting, Olive Trees. (The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art/Associated Press)
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Conservationists at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., have found an expected material in Van Gogh's Olive Trees: a grasshopper.  6:59

Story transcript

Vincent Van Gogh was well known for the texture in his paintings. But one art historian's latest find shows that not every element of his signature impasto technique was intentional.


"I ran across the partial body of a tiny grasshopper embedded in the wet paint," Mary Schafer, a painting conservator at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, tells As It Happens host Carol Off.

"This would date back to 1889 when Van Gogh was working on the piece."

A small grasshopper has been found embedded in the thick paint in the lower foreground of Vincent van Gogh's painting Olive Trees. (The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art/Associated Press)

The grasshopper can't be seen with the naked eye. Schafer discovered the bug when she was closely examining Van Gogh's Olive Trees for an online catalogue the museum is putting together on their collection of French paintings.

"I've always wondered if I would ever come across an insect in the wet paint," Schafer said. "I've painted outside and seen little gnats circling around my palette and the turpentine."

Schafer says the grasshopper was only about six millimetres in length, so Van Gogh probably didn't even notice the insect had landed on his palette. (Patrick Seeger/AFP/Getty Images)

To find out more about the grasshopper and whether it might offer any clues about the exact date Van Gogh painted Olive Trees, Schafer asked paleontologist Michael S. Engel to take a look.

"It's amazing how much I've learned about grasshoppers in this process," Schafer said. "I sort of dangled a potential grasshopper in a Van Gogh painting in the email and he responded back."

After trading notes, Schafer and Engel concluded the grasshopper was missing parts, badly desiccated and probably was dead before it hit the paint.

"You can see all the swirling purple and green colours of Van Gogh's paint and then you see this circular indentation where the head pressed down," Schafer explains.

"You also see this interesting sort of linear shape that belongs to the leg and there's this angular pattern on it and there is some brown material." 

Paintings conservator Mary Schafer made the grasshopper discovery while examining the painting under magnification. The bug isn't visible through casual observation. (The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art/Associated Press)

Schafer doubts that Van Gogh was even aware that the insect had landed on his palette because it was so small. She said it's common to find all kinds of debris, dead or alive, mixed into the work of plein-air painters.

But what makes this find particularly exciting is when you read some of the letters Van Gogh sent to his brother at that time.

As Schafer points out, in a 1885 letter to his brother Van Gogh writes: 

"Just go and sit outdoors, painting on the spot itself. Then all sorts of things like the following happen: I must have picked up a good hundred flies and more off the four canvases you'll be getting. When one carries them across the heath and through hedge rows for a few hours the odd branch or two scrapes across them."

Looking through his letters, Schafer says, "You can kind of imagine all the different scenarios for how this grasshopper might have landed in our painting."