19th century painter Edmund Walpole Brooke occupies a tiny but enduring place in art history. Not because of his own work, but because he offers an exciting insight into the tragic last days of Vincent van Gogh.
That the two shared an almost friendly relationship in the weeks before van Gogh committed suicide in July 1890 was a remarkable achievement, given Van Gogh’s embrace of isolation during his stay in Auvers-sur-Oise, a village on the northwestern outskirts of Paris .
But Brooke grew up in Japan, a place that fascinated and inspired the Dutch painter. And so they went on outdoor painting excursions, their relationship captured in some letters that made Brooke a fascinating figure to a Van Gogh scholar who is still struggling to understand why he shot a bullet in his chest .
“He’s a very enigmatic person,” said Tsukasa Kodera, curator and professor of art history at Osaka University in Japan, of Brooke, who has become a focus of his research. “Maybe he got letters from Van Gogh, maybe he was given drawings or paintings – maybe they exchanged works.”
Kodera has spent most of a decade with limited success looking for information about Brooke. He has visited his burial site in Japan and found records showing that Brooke’s work was shown in exhibitions at the Royal Academy of Arts in London and the Paris Salon in 1891 during his lifetime and was the subject of at least two solo exhibitions in Japan.
But finding a Brooke painting may have hampered Kodera, at least until now. In April, thrift store enthusiast Katherine Mathews came across a watercolor signed EW Brooke while browsing Warehouse 839, a store in Saco, Maine that specializes in everything from home furniture to odds and ends.
She paid $ 45 for the picture, which shows a Japanese woman and a child. On the way home, curious to know what she’d bought, she stopped in the parking lot of a grocery store to look for that Brooke person on her iPad. She soon saw the connection with Van Gogh and later got in touch with Kodera with the help of her husband John.
The professor thinks they probably discovered something rare, an original Brooke.
“Are there any other painters who have painted this subject with the name EW Brooke and with a Japanese woman and a baby?” Said Kodera in a telephone conversation. “We cannot imagine any other painter.”
The painting in question is small, 13 “by 19”, and the woman is carrying the child on her back. They are shown in front of a country house surrounded by lush foliage.
Kevin Keraghan, who owns the Maine store, said he acquired the painting about 15 years ago from a family estate sale in New Hampshire. This family was originally from California, which Kodera thought was a good sign since two of Brooke’s brothers lived there.
The watercolor hung in Keraghan’s house for more than a decade before he decided to put it up for sale. “My tastes have changed,” said Keraghan.
Mathews said she was immediately drawn to the painting. It was the last item she picked that day. “The little girl’s little face peeking over her mother’s shoulder jumped straight at me,” she said.
Among the few glimpses of van Gogh’s last days are the moments that he captured in letters that he exchanged with his brother Theo, his mother, Anna, his sister Willemien and a few others. Brooke is one of the few people mentioned in their correspondence from a time when Van Gogh was creating “Wheatfield With Crows”, “The Church at Auvers” and other paintings at a typical feverish pace.
In the letters, van Gogh’s perspective on Brooke, who was 24 at the time, seems to be that he is good as a companion but has been a mediocre artist so far.
“He will probably show you some of his studies, which are quite lifeless, but he observes nature,” he wrote to Theo on July 2nd. “He’s been here in Auvers for months, and we sometimes went out together, he grew up in Japan, you would never think that from his painting – but it can come.”
Although he was not a fan of Brooke’s artwork and was known to be quick-tempered and quick-tempered, Van Gogh enjoyed learning about Japan. He first came into contact with Japanese art in Belgium in 1885 and was enthusiastic about it. He collected, copied and decorated the walls of his studios with Japanese prints. Sometimes they even appeared in the background of his paintings. And he has incorporated what he has learned from Japanese artists like Utagawa Hiroshige into his own technique in a subtle and inventive way.
At some point van Gogh’s obsession grew so deep that he began to see echoes of Japan in the landscape and lifestyle of Provence. “My dear brother, you know, I feel in Japan,” van Gogh wrote to Theo in 1888 shortly after his arrival in Arles.
Brooke, born in Australia, moved to Japan as a child, where his father John Henry worked as a reporter and later director of the Japan Daily Herald, an English language newspaper based in Yokohama. The father “finally came to an important position in Yokohama’s emigration society,” said Kodera in the catalog for the exhibition “Van Gogh & Japan”.
But putting the rest of Brooke’s biography together proved to be a huge challenge. After two years of research, Kodera managed to find the artist’s grave in the Kobe Municipal Foreign Cemetery, surprisingly only 30 minutes from the professor’s own apartment in Takarazuka.
“He moved to Kobe at the age of 58 and had nothing,” said Kodera. “It’s a very sad story.”
Finding a trace of Brooke’s work was equally difficult. A few years ago, the professor found a record showing that the Redfern Gallery in Laguna Beach, California had sold a painting by an artist named EW Brooke, but the gallery owner said he couldn’t remember who bought it. EW Brooke’s work also appeared on the records for a 2014 Los Angeles property sale, but again, the actual work proved elusive.
Kodera was as surprised as anyone when he received an email from Maine saying that a painting by Brooke may have been in a location where the artist has no known connection. Although the piece is still not fully authenticated – a particularly tricky task as there is little else of Brooke to compare it to – the early signs are very promising, according to Kodera.
A watermark was found on the paper of the painting, identifying it as the product of J. Whatman, a company based in England that made high quality paper used by Van Gogh and many other artists.
The contents of the painting also suggest it was by Brooke, Kodera said. During his research, he found a grave with the inscription “Ume Brooke” in Yokohama, where Brooke lived after his return to Japan, which the professor believes is the painter’s daughter.
The girl in the picture found in Maine could very well be Brooke’s child, who died aged 6, and her mother.
One goal of the search for Brooke is the possibility that there could be further references to Van Gogh somewhere in the vicinity of Brooke’s life, perhaps even an undiscovered hidden work that was once a gift from the artist. But hopes for this kind of revelation, to find even another example of Brooke’s work, were dashed when Kodera discovered that Brooke’s house in Yokohama had been destroyed by the catastrophic 1923 earthquake and the terrible fires it caused.
Now some optimism has surfaced again. If a Brooke can show up in one unlikely district of Maine, there may be others who haven’t been lost to time or disaster.
“This CAN be a breakthrough,” said Kodera in an email, using caps for emphasis, “to shed new light on the painter and Van Gogh’s last few months.”