23 April 2019
Late last year, the Van Gogh Museum announced that a photographic portrait that was long thought to be of the 13-year-old Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) is actually of his brother Theo (1857-1891), aged 15. The research that led to this discovery has now been published.
In Oud Holland - Journal for Art of the Low Countries, 2018-3/4, volume 131, an article was recently published about the research conducted by Teio Meedendorp and Yves Vasseur. The title of the piece is: ‘A case of mistaken identity. Concerning the photographic portrait of Vincent van Gogh, age thirteen’. The researchers offer a detailed explanation of how they arrived at their striking conclusion that this was a case of mistaken identity.
The photograph only came to light after World War II. In 1957, Van Gogh researcher Mark Edo Tralbaut identified Vincent as the boy in the photograph. There was some merit in the observation: the boy in the photo does somewhat resemble the 19-year-old Vincent in another confirmed photograph of him. The photograph rapidly gained worldwide fame as the definitive portrait of the artist in his youth.
Uncertainty only set in a few years ago. Research revealed that the photograph in question was taken by photographer Balduin Schwarz in Brussels. It could never have been the 13-year-old Vincent in the photograph, as Schwarz only set up his studio in the Belgian capital in 1870. By then, Vincent had already turned 17. The boy in the photograph is clearly younger than 17 years old.
Early in 1873, the 15-year-old Theo moved to Brussels to work for the Goupil & Cie gallery. We know from his correspondence that Theo had a photographic portrait of himself made soon after he arrived, but the whereabouts of this photograph were not known at the time. Various sources emphasise that the brothers share a likeness, with Theo being a somewhat refined version of Vincent.
Following further comparison with images of Theo and additional forensic research, the unequivocal conclusion could be reached that for the last 60 years, the photograph was at the heart of a case of mistaken identity.
Photos of Vincent
In contrast to other members of his family, photographic images of Vincent van Gogh are very rare. The portrait of a 19-year-old Vincent, which was published in 1914 as the only known photographic portrait of Vincent, now has that status once again.
In 1971, a group photograph was discovered of the students of the HBS (a secondary school in Tilburg) in 1866 or 1867, which possibly includes Vincent. The only other known photograph of him dates from 1886-1887, where we see the artist from behind, sitting opposite Émile Bernard on the banks of the Seine near Asnières.
There are multiple known photographic portraits of Theo, and one more can now be added to the list. For an idea of how Vincent looked in later life, we have to rely on the self-portraits he painted between 1886 and 1890, and on portraits that his artist friends painted of him. Of these, the modest portrait that John Peter Russell painted of him 1886 is thought to be the most accurate likeness.