Professor Jeff Fieberg makes important discovery in Van Gogh painting

Associate Professor of Chemistry Jeffrey Fieberg is known as a professor who makes learning an enjoyable and exciting experience. During a sabbatical last year, Fieberg put his skills as a chemist to use in an unusual way.

Fieberg used scientific techniques to solve a long-standing mystery about an important piece of art: “Undergrowth with Two Figures” by famed post-impressionist Vincent Van Gogh.

The opportunity to work with the painting came through a Centre connection.

“I was looking for a sabbatical topic, and Greg Smith ’95 [director of the Conservation Science Laboratory at the Indianapolis Museum of Art] gave a lecture for a CentreTerm course I taught in 2009,” Fieberg says.

“Greg started up this lab and has an amazing amount of instrumentation, but he needs hands to do the work. So it worked out well for me to join the lab for my sabbatical.”

The painting presented Fieberg with a difficult task. The piece, which Van Gogh painted five weeks before his death, features two figures standing in a field of yellow, orange and white flowers. However, in a letter written after completion of the painting, Van Gogh mentions pink flowers being present as well—despite the fact that no pink flowers can be seen.

“The paint used for the pink flowers was called geranium lake. This paint contains a dye that has faded to white over time due to light exposure,” Fieberg says. “The question was: could we determine which flowers were originally pink?”

Through a complicated scientific process using an x-ray fluorescence analyzer, Fieberg was indeed able to establish which of the flowers in the field were originally pink—an exciting moment for all involved.

“The science behind getting to that point was just awesome for me,” Fieberg says. “The goal was to make a digital reconstruction of the original painting, and the moment that we realized we would be able to do that was an awesome moment.”

Fieberg’s research has given him the opportunity to give lectures on the subject across the world, most notably as a seminar speaker at the world-renowned Louvre in Paris.

“It was amazing giving a talk to the Conservation Science group at the Louvre. The conservationist who worked on the Mona Lisa was in the audience, which made me extra nervous,” Fieberg says. “I never expected to give a talk in any art museum—if you said when I was a Centre student that I would be doing that, I would have thought you were crazy.”

Fieberg spoke at the Louvre while in France leading his 2013 CentreTerm class, “Molecular Modernism: Manet to Matisse,” cross-referenced as both an art history and a chemistry class. Students taking the course had the opportunity to see sites important to numerous artists—including the Chateau d’Auvers, where Van Gogh supposedly painted “Undergrowth with Two Figures.”

“Unfortunately, the Chateau itself was closed in January—but right near the road, there was a whole row of trees that looks like it could have been where it was painted,” Fieberg says. “It was incredible, walking exactly where these painters walked.”

The class required each student to give a presentation about a different artist, allowing the group to study 18 artists through the course of their time in France. But nothing had more of an impression than seeing the places where these artists lived their lives.

“We went on an eight-mile hike called the ‘Trail of the Impressionists’ along the Seine. I said, ‘This is the birthplace of impressionism!’ so often that it became a joke. For some students, that was their favorite day,” Fieberg says. “We also went to all three towns Van Gogh lived in in France—we walked past his house in Montmartre, and we went to Arles, where he cut his ear off and his yellow house was. At Auvers, we saw his gravesite. I had the students write a reflection paper at the end, and one thing several of them said was that, once they saw his gravesite, all of a sudden he became real to them.”

As a professor in Strasbourg in the 2013-14 academic year, Fieberg will have the opportunity to teach his “Molecular Modernism” course three more times—which he greatly looks forward to. Fieberg’s interest in art was first cultivated when he himself studied abroad as a Centre student.

“My senior year, I studied abroad, studying art and music with [retired music professor] Bob Weaver. We studied a week each in Paris, Florence, Munich and Amsterdam,” Fieberg says. “When I got the job here, I knew exactly how I wanted to teach a study abroad course with students—I saw how museums could be used for incredible learning opportunities, and how an interest in art may be sparked when viewing brush strokes in person.”

“If I was not a Centre College graduate, I would not be doing this,” Fieberg continues. “Coming out of high school, I had no art history or studio arts classes. Humanities courses [at Centre] opened my eyes to art.”

Fieberg looks forward to more ways to discuss his research, with an upcoming talk at Emory University as well as a lecture at the American Institute of Conservation Meeting in Indianapolis this May titled “The Case of the Missing Flowers: A Collaborative Investigation into the Digital Reconstruction of a Vincent Van Gogh.” Although he’s now clearly considered an expert, Fieberg still happily considers himself a student of art.

“It’s been amazing for me to be learning inter-disciplinarily constantly. I love the idea of being a life-long learner, and I’m learning so much,” he says. “It’s been a blast.”

by Elizabeth Trollinger
March 28, 2013