Monday, April 1, 2013

The photo plot thickens

As you know if read this blog, I've posted a few times about a minor controversy surrounding a photograph that was unearthed in the 1990s in a Massachusetts' antiques shop.  Some who have observed the photo are convinced that it is a picture of Vincent Van Gogh, taken during the years he lived in Paris with his brother Theo.  If true, this would be important in that it stands as the only portrait photograph taken of Vincent as an adult; in fact, the only picture in existence that shows his adult face.  The truest believer in this theory is Joseph Buberger, a photographer and historian of photography who conducted a forensic comparison of the photograph with several of Van Gogh's painted self-portraits.  (An exhibit detailing Joseph's work ran in the Seton Gallery at the University of New Haven back in 2004.)   Joseph believes that he has proven that the features of the man in the photograph and the man in the paintings are identical.  Previously, I've expressed my doubts about the hypothesis.  Check out this earlier post and this one.  I've suggested that the photograph, to me, doesn't really look like the same person that we see in earlier, and widely verfiied, photographs of Van Gogh.   Others, however, are more sympathetic to Joseph's argument.  Several weeks ago, Joseph sent me a copy of an email he received from Pascal Bonafoux, an art critic and curator centered in Paris.  Bonafoux seems to accept without question that the man in the photograph is Van Gogh:

Thank you very much! Your discovery is fantastic!!!
As you can imagine, I would like to know how you have found this 
photograph of Vincent van Gogh as well as il would be very interreting 
to read the text by Albert Harper, even if, looking at this photograph 
I have no doubt: this man is Vincent him-self.
Let me apologise if I didn't gave you an answer immediately, but I am 
in charge of an exhibition to be opened at the end of the month here in 
Paris (MOI! autoportraits du XXe sicle or if you Prefer I, self 
portraits of the last century.) This exhibition will present more than 
150 pieces. As you can imagine I am a little bit busy
But, one more time, thank you very much for this wonderful discovery.
Best regards
Pascal Bonafoux 

However, while I was away at the AWP conference in Boston in early March, I received an intriguing e-mail from one Hazel Smith, a Canadian who lives in Toronto, who loves Van Gogh, and who has been following this photo controversy with interest.  According to Hazel, the photographer whose name is clearly plastered across the face of the photograph in question--Victor Morin of "42 Rue St. Francois, St. Hyacinthe"--was not a 19th century Parisian but a 19th century Canadian!  There is a Rue St. Francois in Paris, but, to quote Hazel, "There is only one St. Hyacinthe in the world, and that is in Quebec, Canada."  To further make her point, Hazel attached a photo of a page from a Quebecois business directory from the late 1800s.  The name Victor Morin is clearly apparent (as part of the team of Morin & Messier).  And the address? 42 Rue St. Francois! (I don't know if readers can enlarge the photograph above, but if you do you will see Morin & Messier listed on the first column of the first page.  If anybody's interested I can email you this photograph.  Just contact me at This puts to rest any possibility that a French photographer took the picture in question.  And since Vincent never lived outside of Europe--he never so much as took an excursion trip to the New World--it's impossible that Morin took his picture during a time that Vincent happened to find himself in Quebec.  Did Morin travel to Paris and set up shop temporarily as a portrait photographer in that city and thus happen to get Vincent's business one afternoon?  Now we seem to traveling farther and farther from the reasonable.   First, one would need to prove that Morin took such a trip, and so far no such proof exists.  Second, why would a photographer working in Paris affix a Quebecois address on a picture that he took?  He's not likely to drum up a lot of business in Paris for his portrait studio in Quebec!  

That fact that Victor Morin worked in North America and not Paris certainly does clear up one question I've had from the beginning: How did the album (which, by the way, includes mostly pictures of clergymen) containing this photograph find its way to an antiques shop in Massachusetts in the first place?  If it originated in Quebec rather than Paris, the travel distance to Massachusetts gets significantly smaller.   I'm afraid Occam's Razor shows us the clearest path to the truth in this situation.  The least complicated explanation among the various competing explanations is that man in the photograph is not Vincent Van Gogh but an anonymous, nineteenth century citizen of Quebec who bears some resemblance to Van Gogh but can't really be regarded as identical.  Someone who bears a passing resemblance to famous person--that's not exactly rare is it?


  1. Thanks for listening, John. I find this so frustrating as it is now showing up on Wiki as being legit.

  2. Sorry Hazel, please don't feel frustrated, the truth will come out!
    There was a Morin in the photo business in Namur, Vincent was there!

  3. Did you see this link John? Best wishes, Joe

  4. Ho John, just look at the jackets,holy cow! If the link does not open,any VG portrait page will do.
    And also check Dr. Felix Rey's portrait, same jacket!
    I hope I'm not pestering you.


  5. You're not pestering, just making your case. Thanks for speaking up. I hope anyone else following this controversy will feel welcome to speak up as well.

  6. Here's something new John, some more validation, Sotheby's and A.P. must believe or they wouldn't have used it!

  7. Here's something interesting John. Wilfred Arnold visited me some years ago to see my evidence regarding the Van Gogh. He is a strong supporter! You will enjoy his link.

  8. Hi, I wonder if the debate is still ongoing? On Wikipedia the photo is currently listed as controversial, not legit.
    I came across the photo only today and to my eye, resemblance between the photograph and Vincent's self portraits is far from striking. On Wiki it is listed as originating frum Brussels, not Paris, as discussed here. But I did my share of googling and did not find any other place called St. Hyacinthe, other than that in Quebec, either, and the business directory page you present here is a very compelling piece of evidence.
    I'd love to know now how what evidence there is that may link the photograph to Brussels.

    1. Yes, I want someone to explain to me properly how Victor Morin of St. Hyacinthe Quebec took Van Gogh's photographic portrait.

    2. There was a major photographic business in Namur, Belgium, "Morin & Tholander " while Vincent was there. Victor Morin certainly could have gone there, he was a very prominent man!

  9. Hi! Did my previous comment get through or not? Am wondering what the evidence is linking the photo to Brussels (as said in other sources). I find the evidence from the business directory compelling and could not locate a St. Hyacinthe except the one in Quebec either. Moreover, I don't think the man in the photo has really close resemblance to Vincent's self portraits.

  10. Hi, thanks for chiming in about this controversy. I must admit that I don't find the likeness to be all that great, at least at first glance. And the evidence that the photographer was in Quebec makes it all but impossible that the man who sat for that picture was Van Gogh. Van Gogh never once set foot in Canada or America.

  11. Thanks for this compelling piece of detective work!

  12. Did Victor Morin go to Europe? Did a Morin family member visit Victor from Europe? Morin & Tholander Photography, Namur Belgium, 1880s?

  13. image masking service The app has over 200 million users worldwide. There is some unique filter that allows you to customize your photos and videos. You can use the cinematic stabilization to make excellent videos. You can share pictures or videos via Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr.

  14. Great work! Has anyone looked at the back of the photo? It looks like a carte de visite that a gentleman might present when visiting someone - here's one I found in a shop in Quebec City of with a 'selfie' of Jules Ernest Livernois, one of the best known photographers in 19th century Canada - . There were a large number of Quebecers who emigrated to Massachusetts in the 19th century, so the album might have been brought along by someone.