Wheat Field With Crows
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by Harry Buschman
Dixon Glanced about the dining room with suspicion. The old woman had taken the painting down and put it on the heavy legged dining table. It looked bigger there than it did last week on the wall. He looked at it sharply and then across the room at old Madame Lucienne. He reached in his vest pocket and withdrew an engraved card – “Robert Dixon, Madam. From Smithson’s. We met last week. We had an appointment for this afternoon – I’m afraid I’m a little early.”
“I remember you well, Monsieur Dixon. You can put your card away.” She lay her head back on the cracked leather headrest of her reclining chair. “The picture was difficult to see in that corner of the room, besides, the frame needed dusting.”
He propped the painting up on a settee near the sunny dining room window, just as it had last week, the possibility of it being authentic momentarily obscured his vision. He cleared his throat and turned to look at the old woman sitting in the chair across the room. She seemed to be dozing, but there was a half smile on her lips and a glitter of light in her half closed eyes. “You say it was in the attic of the hospital, Madam?”
Madam Lucienne nodded her head. “Yes, for years, until Mama brought it home. She carried it home under her arm wrapped in a sheet and she put it right there on that very dining room table.”
“Yes, yes, I know. You’ve told me all that before. But what did she say?”
“Well, after putting it on the dining room table, she slowly unwrapped it – fold by fold – until there it was, just as you see it. She put the sheet on this very chair I’m sitting in. It was a hospital sheet you see, it was something she had to return ... they counted them.”
Dixon turned impatiently from the woman and looked at the painting again. “To the point, Madam ... your mother was the nurse on the floor – the floor where they kept the insane, am I right?”
“Yes. She said he was a most unmanageable man, God rest his soul. Not quite sound upstairs ...” she tapped the side of her head “... a Dutchman I’m told.”
If it was authentic it was priceless. Dixon turned it over and examined the back ... stretched canvas ... small ripple in the lower quadrant. There were no markings, just a reddish stain in the upper left corner. What could that have been? How could he be sure this was a Van Gogh? This old woman, a woman in her eighties remembered it as a child. Who knows? It wouldn’t be the first time an old woman turned out to be a con artist. Well, before Smithson’s brokered it they would insist on verification. Professor Arpel would know. It could be worth millions – or next to nothing.
“It is framed now, Madame – you said it was rolled.”
“That’s right, it was rolled. Then on my wedding day Mama had it framed as a wedding present for Armand and me ... God rest his soul.” Her eyes closed for a moment, then she opened them wide. “It has hung there, in the corner of this room ever since.”
The feeling of distrust let up a bit and he began to breathe a little easier. Dixon had his own opinion just as any man might – but it was more of a hunch than an opinion – he couldn’t back it up. If the old woman was right it would set the date somewhere during that last summer in 1890 when Theo sent Vincent to the hospital in Auvers.
It was a picture of a wheat field, like so many he painted that summer. This one with crows in a troubled sky with a tortured horizon interrupted only by some crooked farm buildings. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it was authentic, he thought? Wonderful for everyone concerned. He brought the painting close to his nose, and yes ... there was the faint smell of oil after all these years ... imagine, oil ... just as he squeezed it from the tube.
“It will have to be verified by experts, Madam. There is so much fraud in this business. The painting will be subject to the closest scrutiny.” He watched her carefully and spoke the next sentence slowly. “The penalties for fraud are quite severe – I must warn you.”
“The penalties are severe on both sides of the fence, Monsieur Dixon.” Madam Lucienne gripped both arms of her chair and rose slowly. She looked at Dixon with frankness and calculation. “I chose Smithson’s because of its reputation. Some dealers would not hesitate to cheat an old woman out of money that is rightfully hers. It is very profitable to declare the painting worthless, buy it for pennies and sell it for millions. The ‘penalties’ as you call them, Monsieur Dixon for this technique are equally severe.”
Dixon nodded in agreement. The old lady’s sharpness impressed him, she was not about to be hoodwinked by a fast talking art dealer. Again, he looked long and hard at the Van Gogh – how did it come to get in the attic of Doctor Gachet’s hospital? Perhaps Madam Lucienne’s mother put it there after his death and waited for a quiet moment to take it home with her. If that was the case, she must have known its potential value as a Van Gogh. Would she have gone to the trouble if it hadn’t come from the hand of Van Gogh himself?
“You understand, I will have to take the painting with me Madam. I have release forms here, we must sign them together. Then I suggest you give your copies to your lawyer – he will keep them safe for you.” He pointed to a large portfolio at the door. “I have a case for the painting. It will be perfectly safe with me. I will drive it to the atelier of Monsieur Arpel; as I told you he is the most knowledgeable Van Gogh expert in Europe. I hope with all my heart, Madam, that this work is authentic – it will be a coup indeed – the greatest find of the generation.”
It fitted neatly in the trunk of Dixon’s BMW. He made sure the lid would close without touching the case, then he closed it gently. He stood there thinking of the painting and the sixty kilometer drive to Arpel’s – it would be the first trip in a motor car for the painting, the first time it ever left the town of Auvers for that matter. For just an instant he considered that maybe there were enough Van Gogh’s by now – let the master sleep ... and yet, who could possibly resist another. Every art dealer in the world would be at the auction.
He got in the car and sat behind the wheel with his cell phone in one hand and his ignition keys in the other – suppose Arpel wasn’t in his studio!
But he was ... and he sounded cranky. “Ah, it’s you, Dixon. I was just about to leave.”
“I can be there in an hour Professor. Please, I would much rather leave the painting with you than in the trunk of my car all night.”
“Very well. I’ll wait ... I suppose it’s another Van Gogh.”
“It has very impressive credentials. It was given to the owner by Van Gogh’s nurse.
“All this does not make it a Van Gogh.” The professor sounded testy. “A late painting I presume? One with ravens?”
“Yes, that’s right. With ravens – it must have been done in his final month.”
“Well, get here then. I can’t wait all day.” Dixon could hear him grumbling. “ ... damn him anyway. Why couldn’t he just die like everyone else. Damned Dutchman keeps popping up ...”
Arpel hung up abruptly and looked at the old fashioned clock on the wall of his studio. It was surrounded by fifty or more small paintings from the impressionist school, all of them were undergoing x-ray tests and chemical analysis for verification. He had planned an early dinner at the cafe across the street from the university. It always made him feel young again to discuss art and life with the students. Maybe flirt a little with the girls. It was so pleasant to be with the young. Now he had to wait for that shifty eyed fool from Smithson’s. To verify the authenticity of another painting so they would be covered by the insurance should something go wrong. He sat at his desk and looked around his studio and shivered. “What shall I do while I wait? It’s getting cold in here.” He rubbed his hands together and blew on them. “By the time Dixon gets here the fire will be out. I will rebuild it, It will keep me busy.”
He was sick to death of Van Gogh and the mystics who found mysterious hidden messages in his paintings – “Why anyone with half an imagination can find anything he wants in a landscape by Van Gogh. It has become the ‘trivial pursuit’ of the post Van Gogh generation.”
“It’s easier to verify a Da Vinci than a Van Gogh. Dixon should know that – and if he doesn’t know it – what kind of fool is Smithson’s for having people like him wandering around France dragging Van Gogh’s out of old women’s attics?”
It would be an educated guess at best. The painting would be relatively new, the paint scarcely dry. 100 years – an instant of time in the history of painting. The paint, the canvas, even the brushes are the same as those we use today. “I can mix his pallette on my computer. I can call up any one of 65,536 colors, surely one of them will match his. I can resolve the detail of his brushstrokes 640 pixels per line, surely I can follow every stroke of his brush. I can tell for a fact if he was left-handed or right. Yes! I will know for a fact if Dixon’s painting is the real thing or a fake ... but then,” he reminded himself. “Only a fool would reach a conclusion based on facts.”
Arpel paced the length of his studio again and again. From time to time he would poke the fire and glance at his wrist watch then at the clock on the wall. He would mutter irritably to himself, then start to pace again. “Damn fool, Dixon! How long do you expect me to wait? ... probably nothing more than a school boy imitation anyway.”
He finally grew too impatient to wait any longer. Even though he had nowhere special to go he decided to leave, and just as he turned out the lights the doorbell rang.
“Is that you, Dixon?”
“I’m sorry I’m late, Professor ... but the roads in Paris this time of ... “
Arpel turned the fluorescent lights back on again and as they flickered he walked slowly to the front door. “I was about to leave, Dixon. You said an hour – it’s nearly two.”
Dixon smiled apologetically as he edged through the door with his portfolio. He held it up gingerly as though it were a precious icon. “It’s the real thing, Professor – I feel it.”
“I hope it is not, Dixon. Every REAL THING lowers the value of all the other real things.”
“I was thinking of our commission, yours and mine ... and Smithson’s of course. Then there’s the old lady – Madame Lucienne, she’ll be a millionaire.”
“She owns it?”
“Van Gogh gave it to her mother.”
“If it was any good he would have given it to his brother Theo.”
Dixon unzipped his portfolio “Does it matter if it’s good? We are only interested in whether or not it’s authentic.”
Arpel took off his glasses and polished them with a dirty handkerchief he pulled from his back pocket. “Some day I will be asked to verify the rags he wiped his brushes on, or perhaps the hat he wore – I tell you, Dixon – there are days I wish he was never born. He killed himself you know – he decided he could paint no more. He passed his peak and had the good sense to kill himself. Maybe this painting, if it is his, made him decide to kill himself.” Arpel turned on a battery of daylight lamps and moved an easel to the center of the room. Dixon slipped the painting out of his portfolio and stood it on the easel.
Professor Arpel pulled a stool over to the easel and sat down. A long sad sigh escaped him. “So. There you are, Vincent, all that’s left of you. You’re only an echo now, a memory – a mindless machine running down. How painful it must have been. You paint because it’s all you know how to do.” Arpel withdrew the dirty handkerchief from his pocket again and blew his nose loudly. “You want to know if it’s authentic, Dixon. It’s authentic, but it’s not Van Gogh. Do you understand me?”
“It is or it isn’t. Which is it?”
Arpel stood up and turned his back on the painting, he walked to the window. “I love Paris at night, it’s always brighter than the day, isn’t it Dixon. Great cities – Paris, London, New York; they all seem to wait for the sun to go down.”
“It is authentic, Professor, isn’t it? I just know it is.”
“That’s the tragedy of it. Another Van Gogh to be bought by the highest bidder, to be goggled at in a musty museum gallery. Let me read something to you.” Arpel walked stiffly across the room and slid a book from the shelf above his desk. “This was in a letter to his brother, late in his life, very near the end. He wrote ... ‘to keep up courage through it all ... but I am so angry with myself now because I cannot do what I should like to do, and at such a moment one feels as if one were lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep, dark well, utterly helpless.’ Do you see what I mean, Dixon?”
“What should I tell Smithson’s, Professor?”
Arpel closed the book and slowly replaced it. “It is late, Dixon. You can tell no one this evening anyway – perhaps tomorrow. I will tell you tomorrow. Go home now, Dixon – leave the painting with me. Vincent and I have known better days, we have much to talk about.”
Dixon stood up and put his coat on. He zippered up the empty portfolio and stood by the door a moment. “I know it’s the real thing, Professor. That’s all I can say – somehow that’s the only thing that means anything to me ... I’ll call you first thing in the morning.” He opened the door and closed it softly behind him. Except for the flickering fire, the room seemed empty of life. Arpel sat at his desk looking over at the brightly lit painting on the easel.
“What shall we do with you, Vincent? Tell me. What would you have me do? If you were here with me in this room, what would you tell me to do? Would you have us hang this painting next to “Sunflowers” or “Starry, Starry Night” and say to the world, ‘this is my painting – this is a Van Gogh. I call it “Wheat Field With Crows.” I painted this at the peak of my power’? I think you would not want that, Vincent. I think, instead, you would thank me for what I am about to do.”
He lifted the painting from the easel and looked at it again under the bright lights. Then he walked to the fire. “How light and fragile you are – like dried flowers. I can see you now, with your easel and this canvas walking down the long road to the station, then climbing the steep hill past the Catholic church – past the cemetery. You want to paint once more, as well or better than you did at Arles. But there was never a light like there was at Arles. Never a blue so blue. Never a sun so warm. You stop to look at this canvas you’ve done this afternoon and you shake your head. You don’t know what has gone wrong, but you know there is nothing in you now – you’re empty ... “
“Where did the sunflowers go, the cypresses and the fields of wheat and corn? They don’t grow well in Auvers, do they Vincent? Not like they did at Arles.”
“You could have given this painting to Theo. Instead, you’ve given it to me.”
©Harry Buschman 2005
The art of art, the glory of expression and the sunshine of the light of letters, is simplicity.