When out of canvas...

Daubigny’s garden

Tea towel

The back of a painting can tell us a lot. On this canvas, we can see red stripes along the top and bottom. These stripes are woven into the fabric. They reveal that Van Gogh painted on an ordinary kitchen towel. Towels of this kind were sold just about everywhere in the 19th century. Van Gogh had probably run out of canvas temporarily and reached for whatever was available. Fortunately, a new shipment arrived from Paris soon after, allowing him to paint a larger version of the garden.

These holes in the canvas show that the towel had been stretched on a different frame earlier.


The labels on the back of this painting tell the story of its travels. Daubigny’s garden never left the Van Gogh family’s possession. Through Vincent’s brother Theo and wife Jo, it came into the hands of Vincent’s nephew. (On the stickers, he is called ‘ir. Van Gogh’, a Dutch abbreviation for ‘engineer’.) This nephew sent it to an exhibition in Indonesia in 1938, along with thirteen other paintings. In February 1939 these paintings travelled on to San Francisco (U.S.A.) for the Golden Gate International Exhibition.

The start of the Second World War made it impossible to bring the paintings back to the Netherlands. But this problem was turned into an opportunity: the paintings were exhibited throughout America and Canada. The cities where they were shown included Toledo (Toledo Museum of Art sticker), Montreal (Art Association sticker), Syracuse (Syracuse Museum sticker), and New York (Museum of Modern Art sticker).


These wooden ‘keys’ are small but important. They are used to stretch canvases. This is only possible if the wooden frame holding the canvas is made of separate parts. By fitting the keys into the corners of the frame, you can separate the stretcher bars a little. If the canvas is starting to sag, this tightens it.

Van Gogh bought readymade canvases but usually mounted them himself. He would cut a piece of canvas from a roll and nail it onto a wooden stretcher frame.