Van Gogh, or No?: Art Historians Shoot Down Dubious New 'Discovery' of Theo Van Gogh Portrait

1 July 2011

For those who don't have time to comb through the 600-page-plus catalogue of the Van Gogh Museum's new exhibition, "Van Gogh in Antwerp and Paris: New Perspectives," the institution recently announced its curators' most noteworthy conclusions.

While some aren't likely to spark a lot of controversy (e.g., "Wheatfield with a Lark" in fact depicts a partridge), one claim has been getting a lot of attention: that an 1887 self-portrait actually represents the artist's brother, Theo van Gogh.

Many are skeptical of the assertion, made by senior researcher Louis van Tilborgh and senior conservator Ella Hendriks. One thing, however, is for sure: the museum has launched a lively art-world debate, with some observers wondering if they selected the wrong painting as an image of Theo.

Vincent and his gallerist brother were very close, and much of what is known about the artist's life comes from the 652 letters that he wrote to Theo when they lived apart. So it has always seemed odd that there are no known portraits of Theo. When preparing the exhibition, van Tilborgh and Hendriks took a small-scale portrait from 1887 out of storage and compared it to another from the same year. Both had been identified as self-portraits, but the researchers decided that they are actually companion pieces, one depicting Vincent and the other Theo.

They based this assertion on three factors: Theo has a rounder ear, his beard is more ochre-colored and less red, and his cheeks are shaven. (Van Gogh would not mutilate one of his ears until December 1888, then portraying himself for a certain period with a bandaged ear.) Yet, oddly, the sitter identified as Theo wears the broad straw hat of open-air painters, while Vincent sports a gray felt hat preferred by Parisian businessmen. Why? According to the curators' statement, van Gogh's decision to switch the hats "was probably a joke."

Now, many experts are wondering if the Van Gogh Museum has gotten it wrong. Independent curator Belinda Thomson, author of "Van Gogh Paintings: The Masterpieces," told ARTINFO in an email that while she finds it "perfectly logical" that van Gogh painted his brother during this period, she has always thought that the other portrait, with the grey felt hat, seemed "to be a dead ringer for Theo," given his "more triangular shape of face, more delicate features, higher cheekbones and more hollowed cheeks." Given these differences, she writes, "my question for the authors would be, do we not, perhaps, have two portraits of Theo?"

The ear argument, in particular, seems especially unconvincing. Thomson points out that ears "can look different according to the fall of light." Art critic Martin Gayford, author of "The Yellow House," a book on van Gogh and Gauguin in Arles, told ARTINFO in an email that he is "not entirely convinced by the points about ear shapes, etc." Like Thomson, Gayford believes that the other portrait looks more like photographs of Theo. But, he adds, "Vincent certainly regarded his brother as an alter ego, especially in more manic moments, which complicates the question."

Many commenters on the Van Gogh Museum's Web site raised a pertinent objection to the identification: the buttons on the sitters' jackets in both portraits are reversed, since it was standard at the time for buttons to be placed on the right side of garments, which would indicate that van Gogh painted both from his own reflection. The objectors have been so persistent that researcher Louis van Tilborgh took to the museum's blog to dismiss this argument, saying that since some buttons are missing, it is not clear in which direction the jacket is buttoned. "Moreover, we know that in some self-portraits the jackets are buttoned right over left, but in others left over right," he adds. "This suggests that Vincent was generally not so concerned with depicting them in a realistic fashion."

This is not the first time that this portrait has been identified as Theo. The curators state that Jacob Baart de la Faille, who established Van Gogh's catalogue raisonné in 1928, came to the same conclusion in 1958. The two brothers were known to have looked very similar, with Theo's widow Jo van Gogh-Bonger stating in 1914 that there was a great resemblance, but that Theo had more delicate features with the same reddish fair complexion. However, Vincent Willem van Gogh, Theo's son, disagreed with de la Faille's identification, and the theory was forgotten.

Reviving the Theo identification has certainly generated a lot of press for the exhibition, and Le Figaro asks whether the researchers haven't exaggerated their hypothetical findings in order to create a buzz. While the debate over the identity of the portrait is unlikely to be settled anytime soon, the show masterfully charts van Gogh's artistic development during his life in Montmartre with Theo, when he discovered Impressionist painting and became friends with Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec. In Paris, he painted many self-portraits because he couldn't afford to hire models, writing to his sister that "my intention is to show that a variety of very different portraits can be made of the same person" — an artistic ambition that continues to fascinate and baffle art experts today.


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