Monday, February 25, 2013

Once more to the photo

Several weeks back I posted a little known photograph (there it is again on the right) that some have argued is a portrait of Vincent Van Gogh taken during the time he lived with his brother Theo in Paris.   The strongest proponent of the argument is Joseph Buberger, a photographer and historian of photography, who initiated a series of forensic studies of Van Gogh's painted self-portraits and compared these to the photograph in question.  Joseph and I have emailed a few times.  In Joseph's mind, the man in the painted self-portaits and the man in the photograph are unquestionably the same.  This argument has not been universally accepted, certainly not by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, which Joseph complains will not give him the time of day.   I had my own doubts--I expressed them in my earlier post--based partly in discrepancies I noticed between the disputed photograph and one taken of Vincent when he was a teenager (i.e., the one in the next paragraph, on the right).   Obviously aging changes people, but to my eyes the man in the disputed photograph doesn't look like an older version of Vincent but a different person altogether.

Joseph does have an answer to this argument.  He claims that the earlier photograph was misidentified, and is actually a photograph of Vincent's brother Theo.  He can offer no proof of this misidentification; he simply makes the claim because he is convinced that the disputed photograph must be of Vincent.   I'm very happy that Joseph keeps pushing his case.  He should; and if his emails are any indication, he will.    If the disputed photograph is of Vincent, then it certainly needs to be included in the Van Gogh canon.   But it's hard to just readily accept the misidentification theory.  First, one would have to ask why the earlier photograph was misidentified by Vincent's own family and why the error was allowed to stand for so long.  Second, one needs to realize that there is yet another familiar photograph of Van Gogh, this one taken when he was a boy.   (That's it on the left.) In my eyes, the boy in the picture does indeed look like the young man in the photograph that Joseph claims was misidentified.  So, in my mind, if the photograph from Vincent's teenaged years was misidentified then the photograph from his childhood must have been also.  And how likely is that to have happened, by members of his own family?

It certainly is true that Theo Van Gogh bore a strong resemblance to his brother, but there are distinct and identifable differences between the two men.  The pictures that previously have been identified as the young Theo do strike me as legitimate, and they are by no means identical to the pictures that have been identified as the young Vincent.  See here two photographs that have long been accepted as being of Theo, one taken when he was a teenager and the other, years later, after he had became eestablished as an art dealer.  While I can easily say that the "teenager Theo" is the same man as the man in the "professional Theo" picture, I would not say that about the "teenager Vincent" photo, which Joseph argues isn't Vincent at all but really Theo.  Using Occam's razor, I have to conclude that the pictures that have been long established, and reprinted in numerous Van Gogh biographies, were in fact accurately identified.  

But this is only my opinion.  Is it possible that Joseph will, in the long run, be proven correct?  Of course.  For now I hope he keeps pressing his case, at least until the truth is clarified, one way or another.  By the way, another of Joseph's passions is to take photographs of radiant light. Follow this link to his online gallery.


  1. I have doubts that the older gentleman in the photo is Vincent. The man looks much older than Vincent would have looked even when he passed away.
    I'm surprised that the photo hasn't been authenticated one way or the other.
    It is sad to me that there are no photos of Vincent as an adult. I am a painter and have painted several portraits of Vincent as I believe he would have looked.

    1. Yes, Sandra, I have to agree. And it is sad there are no definitive photos of Vincent as an adult. But I have since found out about a different photo that looks more promising. It shows a group of men around a cafe table, and most experts have been able to identify them as familiar (to us) painters, including Van Gogh. I'll have to track down that photo. . .