The Hunt for Clarity About van Gogh’s Last Days Leads to Maine

The 19th-century painter Edmund Walpole Brooke occupies a tiny, however sturdy place in artwork historical past. Not due to his personal work, however as a result of he affords a tantalizing look into the tragic final days of Vincent van Gogh.

That the 2 shared one thing shut to friendship throughout the weeks earlier than van Gogh dedicated suicide in July 1890 was a noteworthy feat given van Gogh’s embrace of isolation throughout his keep in Auvers-sur-Oise, a village on the northwestern outskirts of Paris.

But Brooke had grown up in Japan, a spot that fascinated and impressed the Dutch painter. And so off they might go into the plein air on portray excursions, their relationship chronicled in a couple of letters which have made Brooke an intriguing determine to a van Gogh scholar who continues to be struggling to perceive what led him to put a bullet in his chest.

“He is a very enigmatic person,” Tsukasa Kodera, a curator and professor of artwork historical past at Osaka University in Japan, stated of Brooke, who has turn into a spotlight of his analysis. “He might have received letters from van Gogh, he might have received drawings or paintings as a gift — they might have exchanged works.”

Kodera has spent the higher a part of a decade, with restricted success, looking for details about Brooke. He has visited his gravesite in Japan and located information to set up that Brooke’s work was included in exhibitions throughout his lifetime on the Royal Academy of Arts in London and on the 1891 Paris Salon, and was the topic of a minimum of two solo exhibits in Japan.

But discovering a portray by Brooke has stymied Kodera, a minimum of till now, maybe. In April, Katherine Matthews, a thrift retailer fanatic, occurred upon a watercolor with the signature E.W. Brooke whereas rummaging via Warehouse 839, a store in Saco, Maine, that focuses on every thing from property furnishings to odds and ends.

She paid $45 for the picture, which depicts a Japanese girl and a baby. On her means residence, curious to know simply what she had purchased, she stopped in a grocery retailer car parking zone to lookup this Brooke individual on her iPad. She quickly noticed the van Gogh connection and later, with the assistance of her husband, John, made contact with Kodera.

The professor thinks they’ve most likely found a uncommon factor, an unique Brooke.

“Are there any other painters who painted this subject matter, with the name E.W. Brooke, and with a Japanese lady and a baby?” Kodera stated in a phone dialog. “We cannot imagine any other painters.”

The portray in query is small, 13 by 19 inches, and the girl is toting the kid on her again. They are depicted in entrance of a rural residence surrounded by lush foliage.

Kevin Keraghan, the proprietor of Warehouse 839, hung the portray in his residence for greater than a decade earlier than deciding to promote it. Credit…Cody O’Loughlin for The New York Times

Kevin Keraghan, who owns the Maine store, stated he acquired the portray about 15 years in the past from the property sale of a household in New Hampshire. That household had initially come from California, which Kodera thought a superb signal since two of Brooke’s brothers lived there.

For greater than a decade, the watercolor hung in Keraghan’s residence till he determined to put it up for sale. “My tastes changed,” Keraghan stated.

Matthews stated she was instantly drawn to the portray. It was the final merchandise she chosen that day. “The little face of the little girl peeking over the mother’s shoulder jumped right out at me,” she stated.

Among the few glimpses obtainable of van Gogh’s final days are the moments captured in letters he swapped along with his brother Theo, his mom, Anna, his sister Willemien, and a few others. Brooke is without doubt one of the few individuals talked about of their correspondence from a time when van Gogh, working at a usually feverish tempo, created “Wheatfield With Crows,” “The Church at Auvers” and different work.

Van Gogh didn’t gush about Brooke’s paintings however spoke of him as a companion in a  letter he wrote to his household. Credit…RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY

In the letters, van Gogh’s perspective on Brooke, who was then 24, seems to be that he’s high-quality as a companion however is a middling artist, up to now.

“He’ll probably show you some of his studies, which are rather lifeless, but however he does observe nature,” he wrote to Theo on July 2. “He has been here in Auvers for months, and we went out together sometimes, he was brought up in Japan, you would never think so from his painting — but that may come.”

Though he was no fan of Brooke’s paintings, and was famously irascible and mercurial, van Gogh loved studying about Japan. He had been uncovered to Japanese artwork in for the primary time in Belgium in 1885 and have become enthusiastic about it. He collected, copied and festooned the partitions of his studios with Japanese prints. Sometimes they even confirmed up within the background of his work. And he integrated what he discovered from Japanese artists, like Utagawa Hiroshige, into his personal approach in delicate and creative methods.

At one level, van Gogh’s obsession grew so deep that he started to see echoes of Japan within the panorama and life-style of Provence. “My dear brother, you know, I feel I’m in Japan,” van Gogh wrote to Theo in 1888, quickly after arriving in Arles.

Van Gogh might have been drawn to Brooke due to the younger artist’s connection to Japan, a main supply of inspiration for van Gogh.Credit…Cody O’Loughlin for The New York Times

Brooke, born in Australia, was solely a baby when he moved to Japan, the place his father, John Henry, labored as a reporter for after which director of the Japan Daily Herald, an English-language newspaper primarily based in Yokohama. The father in the end “came to occupy an important position in Yokohama’s expatriate society,” Kodera stated within the catalog for an exhibition, “Van Gogh & Japan.”

But piecing collectively the remainder of Brooke’s biography proved to be a significant problem. After two years of analysis, Kodera managed to discover the artist’s grave on the Kobe Municipal Foreign Cemetery, surprisingly solely 30 minutes away from the professor’s own residence in Takarazuka.

“He had moved to Kobe having nothing at the age of 58,” Kodera stated. “That is a very sad story.”

Similarly tough has been discovering any hint of Brooke’s work. A couple of years in the past, the professor discovered a document indicating that the Redfern Gallery in Laguna Beach, Calif., had bought a portray by an artist named E.W. Brooke, however the gallery proprietor stated he couldn’t recall who had bought it. A piece by E.W. Brooke additionally confirmed up within the information for a 2014 property sale in Los Angeles, however once more the precise work proved elusive.

Matthews’s husband, John, left, has helped her dig for details about the creator of the portray and discover consultants like Kodera to assist.Credit…Cody O’Loughlin for The New York Times

Kodera was as stunned as anybody when he obtained an e mail from Maine saying a portray by Brooke might have been positioned in a spot the place the artist has no recognized connection. Though the piece continues to be not totally authenticated — a very difficult process as a result of there’s little else by Brooke to evaluate it to — the early indicators are very promising, in accordance to Kodera.

A watermark on the portray’s paper has been discovered, figuring out it because the product of J. Whatman, a agency primarily based in England that made high-quality paper utilized by van Gogh and lots of different artists.

The content material of the portray, too, suggests it was made by Brooke, Kodera stated. During his analysis, he discovered a grave in Yokohama, the place Brooke lived after he returned to Japan, marked “Ume Brooke,” who the professor thinks could be the painter’s daughter.

The lady within the image present in Maine, he stated, might very nicely be Brooke’s baby, who died on the age of 6, and her mom.

Though there’s proof that many as soon as existed, works by the “E.W. Brooke” who painted with van Gogh have hardly ever surfaced. Credit…Cody O’Loughlin for The New York Times

One goal of the search for Brooke is the chance that someplace, within the environs of Brooke’s life, there can be extra proof of van Gogh, perhaps even an undiscovered work hidden away that was as soon as a present from the artist. But hopes for that sort of revelation, for discovering even a further instance of Brooke’s work, have been dented when Kodera discovered that Brooke’s residence in Yokohama had been destroyed by the catastrophic 1923 earthquake and the horrible fires it spawned.

Now some optimism has resurfaced. If a Brooke can seem in an unlikely precinct of Maine, perhaps there are others that haven’t been misplaced to time or catastrophe.

“This CAN be a breakthrough,” Kodera stated in an e mail, utilizing caps for emphasis, “to shed new light on the painter, and on Van Gogh’s last months.”