Vincent van Gogh was one of the most prolific artists of his generation. Despite – or perhaps because of – his mental illness and other worries, the Dutchman produced more than 900 paintings, in addition to 1,100 drawings and sketches. Remarkably, of these, just six are â€˜missing in action’. Of those lost to the art world, The Painter on his Way to Work is one of the most notable, not least because it’s a self-portrait, with the painting giving a fascinating insight not just into his routine as a struggling artist but into his state of mind as well.
Painted in 1888, the painting shows van Gogh himself trudging through the countryside of the south of France, sketchpad or canvas under his arm. According to the artist himself, the work was just “a rough sketch I made of myself laden with boxes, props and canvas on the sunny road to Tarascon.” To art historians, however, there’s more here than meets the eye. The vacant eye-sockets and the darkened fields in the background hint at the turmoil and instability that would afflict van Gogh towards the end of his life. Indeed, within two years of The Painter on his Way to Work being completed, the Dutchman had killed himself.
The painting was held in the Historical Art Museum of Magdeburg, Germany. When the Second World War broke out, however, it was moved to some old salt mines in Austria, to be stored underground for safe keeping. The mine was destroyed in an Allied bombing raid, with numerous pieces of art destroyed. However, some historians believe that some works might have been taken out by senior Nazis and kept in their own private collections. For that reason, the Monuments Men Foundations lists The Painter on his Way to Work as “missing” rather than lost for good. If it does turn up – and the discovery of more than 1,200 supposedly ‘lost’ artworks in an apartment in Munich suggests that there might be hope yet – it could fetch a record amount at auction.