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Adventures with Van Gogh

Adventures with Van Gogh is a weekly blog by Martin Bailey, our long-standing correspondent and expert on the artist. Published every Friday, his stories will range from newsy items about this most intriguing artist to scholarly pieces based on his own meticulous investigations and discoveries.

Mistaken identity: new discovery means there is only one known photograph of Vincent van Gogh

The childhood image that was assumed to be of Vincent is now believed to depict his brother Theo

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Now identified as Theo van Gogh, aged 15, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation) Courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

The Van Gogh Museum now admits that a photograph said to be of Vincent at the age of 13 is not of him—but of his younger brother Theo. Two examples of the photograph survive, originally coming from family albums, and both are in the museum’s collection.

The photograph was first exhibited as showing Vincent at a Van Gogh exhibition in Essen in 1957. Later specialists never questioned the identification and it was reproduced as being of Vincent in thousands of books and articles. Now, that 1957 judgement has been proved wrong.

Yves Vasseur, the organiser of the Mons 2015 European Capital of Culture (which included an ambitious Van Gogh exhibition), made the breakthrough discovery. He recently found that Balduin Schwarz, the photographer whose name is printed on the reverse of the image, had moved from Ghent to Brussels, where it was taken, in 1870. Schwarz, who came from Germany, was both a photographer and a painter.

Even if Vincent had been among Schwarz’s early customers he would have been 16, and the boy in the photograph appears even younger. And, as far we know, Vincent never visited Brussels in his youth, whereas Theo worked there as a young trainee at the Goupil gallery—and is known to have had his photograph taken in the city in early 1873, at the age of 15.

Teio Meedendorp, a researcher at the Van Gogh Museum who worked jointly with Vasseur, also noted that “the light colour of Theo’s eyes is especially striking in the known photographs of him”. The eyes in the Schwarz image are similar.

Of course the two brothers would have had similar appearances, so to be more certain of the identification, the Van Gogh Museum commissioned an analysis by a forensic data specialist, Zeno Geradts, a University of Amsterdam professor. He compared all surviving photographs of the two brothers, including four others of Theo, concluding that there is a “high likelihood” that the Schwarz one represents Theo. This has now been accepted by the museum.

Willem van Gogh, Theo’s great-grandson, says: “I was surprised to hear that this photograph is very likely to be of my great-grandfather Theo, and therefore not of Vincent, but I am pleased that the mystery has been solved.”

Vincent van Gogh, aged 19, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation) Courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

This means that the only surviving portrait photograph of Vincent is of him at the age of 19. This was taken in January 1873, a few months before he embarked on his first job abroad, as an art dealer in London, so he may have wished to give his parents a memento.

But it is interesting that both Vincent and Theo were photographed separately in The Hague and Amsterdam at around the same time. Possibly this was for a birthday present for their father, who turned 51 on 8 February 1873.

After the age of 19 Vincent never again had a portrait photograph taken. As he later wrote to his sister Wil: “I myself still find photographs frightful and don’t like to have any, especially not of people whom I know and love”. Photographs, he said, become “faded more quickly than we ourselves”—while paintings remain “for many generations”.

Martin Bailey is a leading Van Gogh specialist and investigative reporter for The Art Newspaper. Bailey has curated Van Gogh exhibitions at the Barbican Art Gallery and Compton Verney/National Gallery of Scotland; he is now co-curating Tate Britain’s The EY Exhibition: Van Gogh and Britain, opening in March 2019. He has written a number of other bestselling books, including Starry Night: Van Gogh at the Asylum, published by White Lion (available through Amazon in the UK and US), The Sunflowers are Mine: The Story of Van Gogh's Masterpiece (Frances Lincoln 2013, available in the UK and US) and Studio of the South: Van Gogh in Provence (Frances Lincoln 2016, available in the UK and US).

• To contact Martin Bailey, please email: vangogh@theartnewspaper.com

Read more from Martin's Adventures with Van Gogh blog here.