A photo historian named Joseph Buberger recently emailed me a copy of the photograph that you see on the left. As reported by USA Today, the photograph was discovered several years ago by artist Tom Stanford in an album of cabinet card photographs that he found in an antiques shop in Massachusetts. It has since been featured in an exhibit titled Discovering Vincent Van Gogh: A Forensic Study of Identification--at the Seton Gallery at the University of New Haven in 2004--and has been widely circulated through the internet. As soon as he saw the photograph, Stanford felt certain it was Vincent, and Joseph, who assisted with the aforementioned exhibit, agrees. Joseph also has forwarded to me an email from Pascal Bonafoux, French art historian and curator, who seems to accept that the man in the picture could likely be Van Gogh himself. Not all experts concur, however, at least not those at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The reason why this became a hot topic of conversation is that until the photograph in question surfaced, it was assumed that no adult photographs of Van Gogh existed. Or rather, no photographs in which his face is visible. There is one standard photograph of him sitting at a table beside the Siene with Emile Bernard, but in that picture Van Gogh's back is to the camera. The only photographs that represent his face are from earlier in life, when his identity was still very much in formation: one when he is boy and another late in his teens, after he had worked for a couple years as an art dealer in The Hague. (See that one below.) Thus everyone who looks at this "recent" photograph wants to know: Is this what the famous post-Impressionist actually looked like?
To be honest, I have my doubts. While the man in the photograph does bear a resemblance to some of Van Gogh's painted self-portraits, he seems less akin to others. (For instance, the self-portrait on the left, painted during his Paris years, bears a stronger resemblance--in my opinion--to the teenager photograph than this new one.) Besides, portait paintings are by no means a scientifically accurate reflection of what a person looks like. It would seem to make sense to compare the photograph first to the known photographs of Vincent, especially the one from his late teens. When I do that, I have a hard time saying that the men in the two pictures are the same person. The photograph Stanford discovered dates from 1886. As you can see from the name and address imprinted on the picture, the photographer who took it worked in Paris. Indeed, in late February of that year Vincent moved to Paris from Antwerp and stayed in the city for two years. So if the picture does show Vincent, it is Vincent as he was when he shared an apartment with his brother Theo, circulated among the post-Impressionists, and learned a lot about brightening his palette. However, in 1886 he was only thirty-three years old. Less than fifteen years had passed from the time when the other photograph was taken. Is that enough time for a person to change as drastically as Vincent would have had to? One could easily argue that those were a very hard fifteen years for Van Gogh. He gave up art dealing and tried to become a minister and then later decided to be painter. He suffered through a series of dispiriting romantic upheavals--I've written about those before--lived for long stretches in dire poverty and on little food, endured bouts of poor health, and worked himself ragged. At thirty-three, he'd already lived a couple lifetimes. Too, while his life was never truly stable, it was in some crucial ways more stable when he lived in Paris with Theo than at any other period in his adult life. He was no longer starving; he started to look after his health, especially his teeth; and he tried to dress more like a professional man than a laborer. If there was ever a time he would get such a photograph made, it would be during those years.
But even so, I'm still not convinced. Van Gogh never had--not at any time in his adult life--much money to burn. In fact, what money he had came in the form of handouts from Theo. That money typically went to paint and other supplies, books, and--at least while in Paris--visits to cafes. There would not have been much leftover to pay a photographer. (Of course, maybe Theo wanted the photograph made and paid the fee.) Nor is there any mention in his letters of him sitting for a photograph. (Then again, he wrote far fewer letters when he lived in Paris than before or after.) And I have to ask why, if this is a legitimate photograph of Van Gogh, it only surfaced now and not much earlier? Would not Theo have held on to it after Vincent left Paris for Arles? (Theo religiously saved all the letters Vincent wrote him; why not a photograph too?) Wouldn't some other family member have taken possession of it after Theo died in 1891? If it is Vincent, why was the photograph included in an album of photographs featuring mostly clergymen? And, most important, does it really look that much like the man? It could be Vincent, or it could simply be an anonymous 19th century Parisian who bears a passing resemblance to him. If it is Vincent, than we can surely say that the man changed a great deal between his late teens and early thirties. (It's not just that he's older--that's to be expected--but the very structure of his face, and even his nose, looks different to me.) Just as a comparison, look at these two photographs of Paul Gauguin. The one on the left dates from 1880, when the artist was 32; the one on the right dates from 1891, when Gauguin was 43. That's an eleven year time span, and yet there's no mistaking either image for anyone but Paul Gauguin. The man on the left is quite obviously the same man as on the right. I know it's not fair to compare how one person ages to how another does, but it gets to the heart of the question for me. Would an even older-than-his-years Vincent looked like the man in the recently discovered photograph, or would he have looked more like his own photograph from fourteen or so years earlier?
Postscript: Happy New Year! I hope everyone is enjoying a pleasant start to 2013.