Researchers have discovered a small grasshopper embedded for more than a century in the thick paint of Vincent Van Gogh's masterpiece Olive Trees.
The grasshopper was found as part of research for a catalogue of the French painting collection at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City in the US.
While examining the painting under magnification, Paintings Conservator Mary Schafer discovered the tiny grasshopper embedded in the paint. The insect was found in the lower foreground of the landscape, but cannot be seen by visitors through casual observation.
"It is not unusual to find insects or plant material in a painting that was completed outdoors," Schafer said. "But in this case, we were curious if the grasshopper could be used to identify the particular season in which this work was painted," she said.
Michael S Engel, Professor at University of Kansas, observed that the thorax and abdomen of the grasshopper were missing and that no sign of movement was evident in the surrounding paint, indicating that the insect was dead before landing on Van Gogh's canvas.
The grasshopper could not be used for more precise dating of the painting, researchers said.
"Olive Trees is a beloved painting at the Nelson-Atkins, and this scientific study only adds to our understanding of its richness," said Julian Zugazagoitia, CEO and Director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum.
"Van Gogh worked outside in the elements, and we know that he, like other plein air artists, dealt with wind and dust, grass and trees, and flies and grasshoppers," said Zugazagoitia.
Van Gogh described his outdoor painting practice and the challenges in an 1885 letter to his brother, Theo: "But 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 that you will be getting, not to mention dust and sand..."
Analysis of the painting also confirmed that Van Gogh used a type of red pigment that gradually faded over time.
These findings suggest that areas where Van Gogh employed this red, either alone or mixed with other colours, appear slightly different today than when the painting was completed.