Vincent van Gogh did not like being photographed. He thought the medium “lacked life” and preferred to preserve his likeness through painted self-portraits. Experts knew of only two photographic portraits of the artist—and as it turns out, van Gogh may have been even more camera-shy than was previously thought. According to the Guardian’s Mark Brown, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has announced that one of the photographs long believed to be of van Gogh is most likely an image of his younger brother Theo.
The photo captures a teenager with light eyes and swirling light hair, his mouth set in a somber line. In 1957, the Belgian researcher Mark Edo Tralbaut publicly presented the photograph at an exhibition and identified the boy as a 13-year-old van Gogh. The attribution was, for many years, accepted without question. According to the museum, the photo “made its way around the world and features in countless biographies” as a portrait of the artist as a young boy.
But doubts about the image began to swirl in 2014, after a Dutch television program compared the photo to the other known image of van Gogh, which was taken at a studio in The Hague when the artist was 19. Nina Siegal of the New York Times reports that the TV show used “experimental imaging technologies” to age-morph the photo of the younger boy, and found that the two photographs did not match—a possible hint that they depicted two different teenagers.
In light of this revelation, the Van Gogh Museum decided to look into the matter, and concluded that the 19-year-old was certainly van Gogh. At the same time, the writer Yves Vasseur independently discovered that Balduin Schwarz, the photographer who snapped the image of the younger child, had only moved his studio to Brussels in 1870. By that point, van Gogh was 17 and living in The Hague.
“I realized that Vincent would have been much older than 13 at the time,” Vasseur says, “and wondered whether it was even possible for it to be him in the photograph.”
But if the boy in the photograph wasn’t van Gogh, who was it? Researchers immediately focused their attention on Theo. The van Gogh brothers were similar in appearance, but Theo had the more slender build, with delicate features and distinctive light blue eyes.
“The light colour of Theo’s eyes is especially striking in the known photographs of him, and this can also be seen in the Schwarz portrait,” explains Teio Meedendorp, senior researcher at the Van Gogh Museum. “This was another indication that the person in the portrait is probably Theo.”
There were other clues, too. In 1873, three years after Schwarz relocated his studio, Theo moved to Brussels to work for the Belgian branch of an international art dealer. Letters indicate that in February of that year, he had a photographic portrait taken of himself. He was 15 years old at the time.
To bolster their suspicions about the true identity of the boy in the image, museum experts commissioned Zeno Geradts, a professor of forensic data science at the University of Amsterdam, to examine all known photos of both Vincent and Theo. Geradts in turn consulted with two other forensic specialists, who all concluded that Theo was indeed the subject of Schwarz’s photograph.
The new findings only add to the elusiveness of Vincent van Gogh, a brilliant but tragic figure who continues to confound critics and scholars. But with the revised identification of the photograph, “we have rid ourselves of an illusion,” says Axel Rüger, director of the Van Gogh Museum, “while gaining a portrait of Theo.”