Will the Real Post-Impressionist Please Stand Up
“Ah! Portraiture, portraiture with the thought, the soul of the model in it, that is what I think must come.”
-Vincent Van Gogh
March 30, 2016 will be Vincent Van Gogh’s 163rd birthday.
In the Artnet article linked here, they discuss how another potential photograph of Van Gogh has been discovered. The contender is circled. If true, it’s a very rare thing.
We know the paintings. The face looks back at us with frank regard, and we think we see enacted in his eyes the story as we know it in retrospect. The suffering, struggle and madness, the lonely death, before the steep and steady rise to posthumous glory.
In the self portraits of Vincent Van Gogh, we have been conditioned to see the whole romantic artist myth personified in one highly misunderstood Dutchman.
This face we know so well, we know almost exclusively from paintings. And another thing we have been conditioned to believe is that it is photography that is the true depiction of reality. It’s almost as if we want a photo to reinforce the honesty the canvases already show us.
As a painter I would suggest that the artwork shows things that a mere mechanical reproduction could never capture. Van Gogh definitely remains relevant to artists today, and is an exemplary honorary Stuckist. But I do understand the appeal of history as captured in photographs. There’s an immediacy to them.
I did not discover that there were actual photographs of Vincent Van Gogh until I was well into my thirties. It’s fascinating to see that visage that I know so well from lingering over every expressive brushstroke of Vincent’s portrayals of himself. Trying to see how he did it. Trying to recognize the magic inherent in the simple manipulation of paint.
I can’t imitate my way to the same pinnacles he reached. It would be pointless to try. What I hope to understand is how he let himself go, to better understand how I too can become more of myself in my own art.
Even though photography was widespread during his lifetime, Vincent seems to have been a bit camera shy. There are two photos we can be certain of, both from his youth:
Vincent Van Gogh as a boy
Vincent Van Gogh Age 19
After that, nothing is certain, not even necessarily the paintings. For example, this one portrait was long considered to be a Vincent self portrait, all dressed up as a Parisian dandy:
But now it’s been decided this is probably a picture of his art dealer brother Theo. The determination was made in part due to the shape of the ear lobes, ironically.
But along the way there have been several controversial photos that claim to depict Vincent in the flesh. A Greek woman is holding onto one she claims her partisan father stole off of a Nazi train full of plunder during World War II.
The one below recently surfaced. It is said to show Van Gogh’s artist buddies Paul Gauguin and Emil Bernard. It is suggested Vincent is there with them, smoking his pipe.
Maybe, maybe not
The artist group photo failed to sell when it came up for auction. The art world remains unconvinced.
The photo below is even more doubtful, based on little more that a hunch. It was picked out of a batch of photos of nineteenth-century clergyman. Van Gogh’s father was in the ministry, so perhaps this is at least some long lost relative.
Doubtful: An uncanny likeness, but no proof
But since Vincent Van Gogh has become such an archetype of the artist, there is no shortage of portrayals of him in the mass media of today. Below are just a few of the times Vincent Van Gogh has been portrayed in the movies and television, as the cautionary/inspirational figure at the heart of the tragic tale of the undiscovered genius.
Boldly Van Gogh: Leonard Nimoy wrote and starred in a play called “Vincent”
No Stooge: Kirk Douglas displays his “Lust for Life”
Brotherly love: Tim Roth in “Vincent and Theo”
It’s elementary: Benedict Cumberbatch in “Van Gogh: Painted With Words”
In “Dreams”: Martin Scorsese
My precious: Andy Serkis in “Simon Schama’s Power of Art”
Vindication: On “Doctor Who,” Tony Curran as Vincent gets a glimpse into the future