Vincent van Gogh was decidedly not a fan of photography. As he wrote in an 1889 letter to his sister Wilhelmina,“I myself still find photographs frightful.” Instead, the Post-Impressionist painter famously captured his world on the more permanent record of the canvas, where he wasn't hampered by transcribing the direct likeness of his subjects, but rather could get at their deeper essence through staccato brushstrokes of contrasting color.
So perhaps there’s some irony that the sole visual evidence we have of Charles Obach—one-time manager of the London Goupil Gallery branch and the individual largely responsible for depriving van Gogh of his only steady art world job—is a studio photograph newly discovered amongst the archives of London’s National Portrait Gallery. As van Gogh expert Martin Bailey writes for the Art Newspaper, the portrait offers a stark comparison to the only known photograph of the artist as an adult, which was taken by Dutch photographer Jacobus de Louw in 1873. Whereas Obach is poised, professional and full of self-confidence, van Gogh looks troubled, his face locked in a muddled expression that underlies the relative reserve of his overall appearance.
As artnet News’ Sarah Cascone reports, Obach and van Gogh first crossed paths during the latter’s brief time as an art dealer. Initially, van Gogh worked at the Goupil Gallery’s Hague branch, enjoying a steady income earned by packing art in the company’s warehouse. But in 1873, the 20-year-old burgeoning artist moved to London, where he fell under Obach’s jurisdiction.
At first, Obach welcomed the younger man. According to Bailey, he and his wife, Pauline, invited van Gogh on a weekend trip to the summit of Box Hill soon after he arrived in the city. During the Christmas season, van Gogh even joined the Obachs for celebrations at their family home.
Unfortunately, Bailey notes, van Gogh “turned out to be an awkward employee,” and he lacked the skills necessary to successfully interact with customers. Obach sent him to Paris in order to see if another branch would be a better fit, but little changed. In January 1876, Goupil’s owner—drawing on Obach’s reports of poor performance—officially dismissed van Gogh, leaving him unemployed and increasingly reliant on the financial and emotional support of his older brother Theo.
Amsterdam’s Vincent Van Gogh Museum offers a detailed outline of the following years, which found van Gogh working at a British boys’ boarding school, a Dutch bookshop and a Belgian coal mine (newly impassioned by a desire to serve God, he worked as a lay preacher in the mining region’s community). By 1881, he had finally embarked on his career as an artist, and over the next nine years, he went on to produce some of the world’s most beloved works of art, including the swirling cerulean skies of “Starry Night” and the bold strokes of his painted self-portraits.
Despite the uncomfortable circumstances of van Gogh’s departure from Goupil, he and Obach remained on relatively friendly terms. As Bailey writes, the pair briefly met in the Hague in 1881, and following van Gogh’s death in 1890, Obach sent Theo a letter expressing his condolences.
The discovery of Obach’s portrait, which was taken by Paul Stabler, a carte-de-visite photographer based in Sunderland, during the 1870s, brings the number of extant photographs of him on par with that of van Gogh. Thanks to the artist’s disdain for the camera, that 1873 portrait is the only photographic representation of his adult appearance available to scholars. (Several group shots alleged to include van Gogh have popped up over the years, but none have been confirmed as his likeness.)
For van Gogh, the possibilities of a painted portrait far outweighed what could be conveyed by photographs of that age. As the artist articulated in his 1889 letter to Wilhelmina, “[Photographed] portraits, first, are faded more quickly than we ourselves, while the painted portrait remains for many generations. Besides, a painted portrait is a thing of feeling made with love or respect for the being represented.”
He ultimately produced more than 43 self-portraits in the form of paintings or drawings. “Painting oneself is not an innocuous act: it is a questioning which often leads to an identity crisis,” the Musee d’Orsay notes. “This is what Impressionism has—to my mind—over the rest,” van Gogh wrote in a separate letter to Wilhelmina, “it isn’t banal, and one seeks a deeper likeness than that of the photographer.”
Van Gogh may not have arrived at this conclusion, nor gone on to pursue a career as an artist, if not for the albeit unwelcome interventions of Obach and Goupil’s owner. Still, as one missive to Theo suggests, van Gogh long had a sense that he was destined for greater things than life as an art clerk.
“I have respect for working, I despise neither Obach nor [Hague School artist Willem] Mesdag, but there are things that I rate infinitely higher than that sort of energy,” van Gogh wrote in 1882. “I would like something more succinct, something simpler, something sounder; I would like more soul and more love and more heart.”