Van Gogh in Orsay, behind the scenes of the exhibition

When they discover the “Van Gogh in Auvers-sur-Oise” exhibition, it’s a safe bet that visitors will be captivated by the magic of colors and the astonishing expressiveness of the master’s painting. It is unlikely, however, that they will appreciate the technical and diplomatic feat required to organize this meeting of masterpieces.

It all started in 2018. “The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam was looking for a strong and original subject, and an important partner, for its fiftieth anniversary”relates the curator of the exhibition Emmanuel Coquery, general curator and director of cultural development of the BnF Museum. “As Orsay is one of the main holders of Van Gogh’s paintings, it established itself as a natural partner. Between the two of us, we already had around fifteen emblematic works, the substantial core of an exhibition. » A shocking argument to convince lenders who reluctantly part with works so coveted that they sometimes alone motivate a visit to a museum. “This partnership clearly helped us obtain the loans because, between us, we have irrefutable weight and legitimacy to then build, loan by loan, the rest of the selection with the institutions. This gives us a real loan power, an ability to borrow through reciprocal loans, and this doubles our strike force. » This alliance also helped to grant certain requests, particularly from private Dutch collectors. “To put it a little trivially: we hold each other, summarizes Clémence Maillard, director of exhibitions at Orsay. The main issue lay in the works that the Van Gogh Museum would very exceptionally agree to bring out of its walls, and us out of ours. »

Extremely fragile canvases

Because if such a project has never been carried out, it is because it constitutes a particularly bold challenge. The paintings created frantically by Vincent Van Gogh during his stay in Auvers-sur-Oise (74 paintings in 70 days!) are in fact the subject of meticulous surveillance, because they are fragile and therefore difficult to transport. “We observe a sort of pulverulence due to his technique, explains Emmanuel Coquery. He works very quickly, “fat on fat”, so the material does not dry well and the paint does not have time to adhere to the canvas. Its strong impasto clearly weakens the paintings. We see this distinctly in works that have not been re-canvased: the weight of the paint creates tension on the canvas. » This vulnerability logically does not encourage owners to lend such treasures. “Despite our efforts, there are some loans that we did not receive and that we greatly regret, such as the portrait of Marguerite Gachet kept at the Kunstmuseum in Basel. It is true that it is fragile, but no more so than others who made the trip, given the scientific quality of the project. » This painting is thus one of the rare ones from the shattering series known as the double squares to be missed. “Eleven of the thirteen paintings in the series are brought together in Orsay: it is an absolutely unique spectacle, the likes of which we rarely see in our lifetime. Such a meeting will never happen again. I fought hard for this and some lenders reversed their initial refusal. »

Installation of the exhibition “Van Gogh in Auvers-sur-Oise, the last months”: theSelf-portrait from 1889 and the portrait of Doctor Paul Gachet from 1890.

© Musée d’Orsay / Photo Sophie Crepy

Exceptional loans

Such constraints obviously require extreme vigilance to avoid any loss of material. Packaging, transport, scenography or hanging: all the links in the operational chain have been scrupulously studied, in order to limit vibrations as much as possible. The Dutch museum notably required that its works travel in Turtle® crates [Lire encadré ci-dessous]which they consider to be the safest. “We mutually provided very important technical and legal guarantees due to the fragility of the works, their truly exceptional character, because these pieces were essential to the project, confides Clémence Maillard. The negotiations were long and tedious, because there are big issues in terms of security. » But the negotiations, which lasted almost until the last minute, bore fruit. “Amsterdam has agreed for the first time to part with its iconic Wheat fields with crows and weChurch of Auvers-sur-Oise, which we never do. » Along the way, a phenomenon was added to these constraints that museums could not have anticipated: the surge in attacks on works. “Faced with the increase in liquid throwing, several lenders have recently requested that protective glass be added. Obviously, this generates additional costs that we had to incorporate into our budget. »

135 works from all over the world

The budget for such a machine, which mobilizes the entire museum teams, from the conservation department to production, including communication, security and, of course, the legal and financial departments, not to mention the sixty or so providers for assembly, is obviously significant. The envelope is thus close to 1.5 million euros, which is almost parsimonious for an operation of this type. The co-organization of the event made it possible to pool costs and therefore reduce the bill by sharing transport costs, checkout costs, administrative costs for loans, supervision and possible pampering. “This represents undeniable savings which allow us to stay within an acceptable budget”, confirms Clémence Maillard. With 135 works from 30 lenders based in the Netherlands, Sweden, Spain, the United States and Hong Kong, any savings are indeed worth taking. “The other source of savings was the state guarantee. Without this system, we would not only have paid 100% commercial insurance, but we would even have encountered difficulty finding insurers who could insure capital of this scale. This allowed us to save several hundred thousand euros. For example, we have the same capital as the Manet/Degas exhibition, but with half as many works. » A balancing act which, however, has its limits, since the museum ultimately had to abandon certain works for financial reasons, but also ecological reasons with regard to isolated provenances which caused disproportionate expenses.

A unique collection of 135 masterpieces

Attention event! Nearly a decade after the last monograph dedicated to Van Gogh, the most French of the Dutch returns to Paris, and in what way! The Musée d’Orsay is in fact orchestrating the very first exhibition dedicated to the painter’s last months spent in Auvers-sur-Oise. This spectacular gathering of 135 works constitutes a first in more than a century, since the retrospective organized by Joanna, the painter’s sister-in-law, in 1905. Surprisingly little known, and for a long time less appreciated than the rest of his career, this production finally reveals itself in all its singularity and experimental power. The culmination of years of research and re-evaluation of this extraordinary corpus, executed with creative fever in just over two months, this exhibition allows us to revisit major works and admire some of them practically never seen, because still in private hands, like the vases of flowers that he multiplied at this time and the variations on the portrait of Adeline Ravoux.


This is the number of service providers who worked for five weeks to set up the scenography, install the lighting and hang the works.

1.5 million euros

This is the amount of the budget. It was possible to reduce it thanks to the pooling of costs.

High-risk transportation

Sensitive point, the transport of these exceptional works. To limit shocks but also vibrations, and guarantee the best possible climatic stability, the paintings coming from the Netherlands traveled in so-called Turtle® crates, a model widely used by Anglo-Saxon museums. Made up of several thicknesses of wood and foam, they are completely modular, and adapt perfectly to the contours of the frames.

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