In Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, painting Conservator Mary Schafer discovered a dead grasshopper in Vincent Van Gogh’s 1889 painting “Olive Trees”. While examining the painting, Schafer discovered what at first appeared to be a leaf, but upon further inspection turned out to be a dead grasshopper. The dead grasshopper revealed the painting’s context, provided details about its creation, and gave proof of Van Gogh’s en plein air—painting outdoors—style. This is not the first time that Van Gogh trapped a poor insect inside his artwork. In a letter written to his brother Theo in 1885, Van Gogh says, “But just go and sit outdoors, painting on the spot itself! Then all sorts of things like the following happen—I must have picked up a good hundred flies and more off the four canvases that you’ll be getting, not to mention dust and sand. . . . When one carries them across the heath and through hedgerows for a few hours, the odd branch or two scrapes across them.” Van Gogh surely would not be surprised to hear about a new insect found embedded in his paint.
But why should any of this matter? Why should we care about a dead insect discovered inside of a dead (albeit famous) painter’s work, a work that many of us have never even heard before?
For starters, the dead grasshopper indicates a great deal about Van Gogh and the nature of his profession. Van Gogh’s preferred painting environment, despite all the inconveniences that accompanied it, reveal his deep connection to nature and his ability to create a genuine representation of the outside environment. His art is not manufactured; he went outside and painted what he saw as well as the experiences that arose from sitting in that particular area, feeling the sun and the wind and watching the delicate sway of the olive trees. His artwork is a not just a physical recreation of the scene, it is an expression of an experience.
However, the importance of the discovery goes beyond the painting itself. Although it is just one small insect, the grasshopper itself is very important. This one grasshopper acts as a tether across a hundred year span, across different cultures and different countries. This one grasshopper gives us insight into the actions, thoughts, and experiences of a man who died a century ago, without a single word being exchanged. It is a signal of the power of art to communicate, not just through the message we receive, but through the context in which it was created and the materials used to breathe it into life. We now have a window into the life of a 19th century artist, and with it an ability to envision ourselves, sitting outside as well, battling the elements and nature to create our next great masterpiece. In other words, this one grasshopper (or really half of a grasshopper) is a reminder of our shared human experience. No matter how much we think humanity has evolved, no matter how much we think our lives are different from those of our ancestors, we can still recognize ourselves in our history, painting so passionately that we don’t realize the small dead grasshopper in the corner of our work.