More Photographs of Vincent Van Gogh?

by Joelle Steele

Vincent Van Gogh shunned photography. It is said that he refused to have his photograph taken, and while one exists of him at age 19, the only other one believed to be of him as an adult was taken in 1886 in Asnières-sur-Seine, a suburb of Paris, with his friend and fellow artist, Émile Bernard, whose parents lived in Asnières. In that photo (left), Vincent and Bernard are seated at a table outdoors, facing each other. But, Vincent's back is to the camera! Is it any wonder that so many people would love to find a photograph of the artist as an adult?

Back in 2006, I wrote about a possible Van Gogh photograph found in the 1990s. Since then, I have become aware of two more photographs that are also believed to show Vincent Van Gogh in groups with other men, mostly artists. So, I've examined both photos, and here's my opinion.

ACADÉMIE JULIAN PHOTO

This photograph is owned by the National Institute of Art History in Paris. It was taken by Edmond Bénard who worked in Paris 1880-1890. It depicts a group of 34 men posing at the Académie Julian in Paris. Art historian and Van Gogh expert Antonio de Robertis believes that one of these men is Vincent Van Gogh. He believes the photo was taken during the first two weeks of February 1888, just before Vincent moved to the south of France. Vincent departed for Arles on February 21st.

Vincent had been living in Paris with his brother from March 1886 to January 1887, at which time he then moved to Asnières-sur-Seine which, by my estimation, seems to be rather distant from the 6th and 8th arrondissements of Paris where the Académie Julian had locations. But, I am guessing that there must have been adequate train transportation so that Vincent could have conceivably been visiting at the Académie Julian in the winter of February 1888, the time during which Robertis dates the photograph.

Vincent was not in Paris for very long, but he managed to make the acquaintance of many artists. By early 1888, Andries 'Dries' Bonger – believed by Robertis to be in the photograph near the man he believes is Vincent – was already known to Vincent as he was his brother Theo's friend and future brother-in-law. Through Theo, Vincent also met Paul Gauguin, Paul Cézanne, Henri Rousseau, Camille Pissarro, Georges Seurat, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. He also met Émile Bernard, Jean-Édouard Vuillard, Pierre Bonnard, John Peter Russell, and Paul Signac, among others.

Robertis believes some of these artists are also in the group photograph. He states that both Vuillard and Bonnard had just enrolled at Académie Julian and that they are in the photo. However, according to Vuillard's journals, he had enrolled at Académie Julian in 1886. In February that year, he failed the entrance exam to the École des Beaux-Arts, and may or may have not been at Académie Julian through July 1888, at which time he was finally accepted at the École des Beaux-Arts. As for Bonnard, he was in law school and graduated in 1888, and did not enroll in Académie Julian until 1889, at which time he met Vuillard.

As you can probably see, trying to establish who was there for the photo shoot is not that easy, and since Vincent was never a student there, trying to date the photo based on his presence in Paris at a particular time is probably not a worthy effort. But, in the end, there is really only one way to determine if he is the man noted in the photograph, and that is by analyzing his face. I enlarged the face in the photo that is purported to be that of Vincent, and I'm afraid I was unable to see a resemblance to him based on a photograph of him when he was 19 or on any of his portraits or many self-portraits. The most significant difference is the overall shape of the face and cheekbones, and the small body. The face and body are simply too fine-boned in comparison to all other images of Vincent, including the one where his back is to the camera.

And now, onto another photograph ...

RUE BLANCHE TINTYPE

This is a tintype, approximately 4.75"w x 3.5"h. Tintypes were laterally reversed unless a reversing mirror was used, and that would be very rare. They were most popular from about 1853 to 1890. This photograph was being offered at auction in Brussels in June 2015, and was described as being French, and taken in Paris in winter 1887. The sitters are supposed to be Émile Bernard second from left, Gauguin on the far right, and Van Gogh seated in the middle smoking a pipe. The others are identified as artist Arnold Hendrik Koning (maybe), artist/politician Armand Marie Felix Jobbé-Duval, and actor André Antoine. It is also said that the location is the back yard of 96 rue Blanche in Montmartre, the location of Antoine's theater, which opened March 30, 1887.

Vincent would have known the people believed to be in this photo. His brother Theo knew Koning and introduced him to Vincent. Koning was 27 years old when he came to Paris in 1887 and he stayed for nine months, rooming with Theo after Vincent moved to Arles in February 1888. Vincent met Gauguin in November 1887, also through his brother Theo. He met Bernard while at the Atelier Cormon in 1886. Vincent had a painting displayed at Antoine's theatre in December 1887. Vincent knew Koning and in November-December 1887, he had organized an exhibition with Koning and other painters at a working class restaurant located at 43 avenue de Clichy in Montmartre, Paris, about 8-10 blocks away from the stated location of the photograph. How Vincent may have known Duval is uncertain to me, but it does appear that he knew the other men, so it is safe to assume he also knew Duval.

So, let's look at five of the six faces in the photograph compared to the known images of the people they are purported to be:

Now let's look at them individually and see if they match. The faces in the tintype are very blurry, but if you've read my articles or my book, Face to Face: Analysis and Comparison of Facial Features to Authenticate Identities of People in Photographs, you probably know that it's the facial proportions which are the first step in identifying a match between two faces.

Antoine. Three things make for a non-match: the length of the filtrum (the distance between the base of the nose and the tips of the lips), the proportion of the length of the nose to the face, and the shape and size of the lips, upper one in particular.

Bermard. Four things make for a non-match: the overall face length, the proportion of the length of the nose to the face, the width of the forehead, and the position of the ear in relation to the head.

Duval. This is really impossible to analyze because I could not find a single photograph of Duval. However, from the caricature it could possibly be him.

Gauguin. This is a possible match based on facial proportions and a slight similarity in appearance.

Koning. This is probably not a match. There is not really enough information to analyze to say for sure. But the mouth and eyes don't look like a match at all.

AND VINCENT?

As for Vincent, I have studied all of his self-portraits, portraits of him by others, and the photograph of him when he was 19 years old, at which time his facial features had matured, although he appears to have had a heavier build at the time, which is also indicated in the photo in which his back is to the camera when he is 33. I think this is not him in the tintype. It simply doesn't look like any of the known images of him.

As with yet another photograph purported to be Vincent, this one was also sent to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, and their expert also said it couldn't be Vincent Van Gogh for the same reason — it didn't look like him.

This article last updated: 09/22/2016.