Research Reveals that Photograph of Vincent van Gogh is Actually of His Brother Theo

A photograph that was long thought to be of the 13-year-old Vincent van Gogh has now been proven to be a portrait of his brother Theo van Gogh, aged 15. This discovery is the result of new, in-depth research conducted by the Van Gogh Museum and Yves Vasseur (General Commissioner of Mons 2015 European Capital of Culture), which was confirmed by forensic examination.

Willem van Gogh (Advisor to the Board of the Van Gogh Museum and great-grandson of Theo van Gogh): ‘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. It is essential that Vincent van Gogh’s legacy is correctly passed on and preserved, and this research makes a significant contribution to such efforts’.

Vincent van Gogh was not fond of portrait photography, certainly not in later life. There were previously only thought to be two known portrait photographs of Vincent: two prints of – as was believed – a 13-year old boy and one print of a 19-year-old young man.

The photograph of the 13-year-old ‘Vincent’ was first publicly presented at a 1957 exhibition organised by Mark Edo Tralbaut (1902-1976), a Belgian Van Gogh researcher. Tralbaut had identified the boy in the photograph as the 13-year old Vincent and gave the photograph the title of ‘Portrait of Vincent van Gogh (circa 1866)’ in the accompanying exhibition catalogue. The photograph since made its way around the world and features in countless biographies. Teio Meedendorp (Senior Researcher at the Van Gogh Museum): ‘The question of whether it could be someone else never came up. There was never any immediate cause for doubt, precisely also because the boy in this photograph bears similarities to the portrait of the 19-year-old Vincent’.

In order to be certain, the Van Gogh Museum commissioned forensic examination of the photograph, which was conducted by Zeno Geradts, Professor by Special Appointment of Forensic Data Science at the University of Amsterdam’s Informatics Institute. High-resolution copies of all known photographic portraits of Vincent and Theo were made available to the professor, who subsequently collaborated with two other specialists to examine the images using guidelines issued by the Netherlands Forensic Institute.

This forensic examination confirmed the high likelihood of the boy in the photograph being the 15-year-old Theo van Gogh, and not Vincent. Axel Rüger (Director of the Van Gogh Museum): ‘This discovery means that we have rid ourselves of an illusion, while gaining a portrait of Theo. We have essentially returned to the situation as it always was up to the mistaken identification in 1957, with a single photographic portrait of the young, 19-year-old Vincent van Gogh’.

IMAGE: Left: Before identified as Vincent van Gogh, aged thirteen. After research identified as Theo van Gogh, aged 15. Photograph: B. Schwarz, Brussels, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation). Right: Theo van Gogh, aged thirty-two. Photograph: Woodbury & Page, Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
(Vincent van Gogh Foundation).