Claudia Fennell ’24
In 1888, famous artist Vincent van Gogh traveled to the French countryside while he was in poor health. While there, he became infatuated with the farming lands around him, which inspired him to create several watercolor paintings depicting “Meules de Blé,” or “Wheatstacks.” Some of these paintings simply show the harvested wheat itself, while others, including one particular watercolor titled Wheatstacks, include women working in the fields as well.
During this time in his art career, Van Gogh was influenced heavily by Japanese art and Wheatstacks, with graphic-like brushstrokes, is an example of how Japanese artwork inspired him. Japanese art influenced so many Western European artists that the French eventually coined the term “Japonisme” to refer to the influence Japanese art had over European artists in the late 19th century.
Wheatstacks has changed hands several times since Van Gogh created it in 1888. The painter first gave the piece to his brother, Theo, who sold it to a Jewish man named Max Meirowsky in 1913. Meirowsky held onto the piece for some time, before the chaos of World War Ⅱ forced him to flee and he gave the piece to an art dealership. Soon thereafter, it was bought by Frenchman Miriam Caroline Alexandrine de Rothschild, who also fled his home when the war broke out. When the Nazis invaded France, they looted de Rothschild’s property. The Nazis stole her art collection, including Van Gogh’s watercolor, and in 1941 they placed it in a museum titled Jeu de Paume, where they stored many of their stolen goods.
After the war, de Rothschild tried to reclaim Wheatstacks but struggled to do so. The piece eventually ended up at a gallery in New York City where it was purchased by Texas oil businessman, Edward Lochride Cox. Following Cox’s death, disputes broke out between Meirowsky, de Rothschild, and Cox’s family over who had rightful ownership over the piece. Eventually, the parties came to a settlement agreement: the profits from the piece would be divided among the three of them.
Wheatstacks has not been seen by the public since 1905 when it was on display with some of Van Gogh’s other works at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Now, the piece is being sold by the auction house Christie’s, who estimate that it could be auctioned for anywhere between $20 and 30 million. Wheatstacks is expected to break a record for the highest selling price for a paper Van Gogh work. The previous record was from his piece “La Moisson en Provence,” which sold for $14.7 million in 1997.
Nazi-looted artwork has been at the center of news headlines for the past few years, as other famous, stolen pieces from artists such as Camille Pissarro and Gari Melchers have been sold at auction for millions. It is important that these valuable works continue to be tracked down and returned to their rightful owners as well as that these rightful owners receive any proceeds from them.