Look at Vincent Van Gogh’s Olive Trees closely enough, and you’ll find the subtle intricacies of his play with color, his brushstrokes, perhaps even his precise layers of paint atop the canvas.
You’ll also find a grasshopper. Well, parts of one, anyway.
Conservator Mary Schafer had been examining some paintings at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., placing each one under a microscope for a detailed look — when, remarkably, she stumbled on a weird substance stuck in the thick layers of paint on Van Gogh’s piece. There, tucked in the shade cast by the olive tree in the painting’s right foreground, a curious, fragmented object stared back at her.
“She initially thought it was just leaf matter,” Aimee Marcereau DeGalan, the museum’s senior curator of European art, tells NPR. Given the fact Van Gogh did a lot of his painting outside, “it’s not unusual to find parts of leaves or dirt or sand” in some of his works.
Then she made out its head.
Marcereau DeGalan says this was exciting — not so much because she and Schafer were secret entomology enthusiasts, but rather because the little guy promised to offer a better sense of when, exactly, Van Gogh completed Olive Trees.
You see, they’ve got a pretty good idea of when he painted it — sometime in 1889, after the famously troubled artist had checked himself into an asylum in the south of France. Just one year from death, Van Gogh probably “realized he was struggling,” Marcereau DeGalan says, “and he was doing some soul-searching, some thinking about his life, his contributions, his place within society.”
And all the while, he was painting. He completed a series of olive tree landscapes during his stay, they know that much — but they didn’t know for sure which month (or months) this one, in particular, was produced.
That’s where the grasshopper comes in. They hoped that perhaps, since scientists know a good deal about these insects’ life cycles, they might be able to gauge the season of Van Gogh’s work from how old this unfortunate grasshopper was when it got plastered in wet paint.