Day 83 of Colourisation Project – July 29
124 years ago on this day, 29 July in 1890, Vincent van Gogh passed away from infection caused by a self inflicted gunshot wound at the age of 37. Considered the greatest Dutch painter after Rembrandt, he was virtually unknown throughout his life. It was only in death that fame came his way.
There is nothing further that I can add to his story that hasn’t already been said. Today I want to focus on the curious fact that Vincent van Gogh did not like having photos taken of himself although he wasn’t averse to painting self portraits. There are more than 40 self-portraits that he completed in his short life time. As for photographs, there are only two in existence that are widely believed to be of van Gogh taken at the ages of 13 and 19.
20 years ago another photo came to light, which may or may not be of the man himself. That photo is the subject of today’s colourisation challenge. The problem with this photo, bought for just $1 in the early 1990s in an antique dealer’s shop in Massachusetts is its veracity.
The man in the photograph does bear a striking resemblance to the van Gogh we know and recognise through his paintings. This little 4 1/2″ x 6 1/2″ photo dates back to 1886 and identifies the photographer as Victor Morin, 42 Rue St. Francois, St Hyacinthe. It shows a middle-aged bearded man wearing a plain suit and bow tie. His hair is short and neatly combed back revealing a distinctive widow’s peak hairline. The close resemblance is hard to deny. But not so for the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. It rejects the notion that the picture is of the artist.
However Albert Harper, director of the Henry Lee Institute of Forensic Science in the US, who has worked on authenticating the photograph is convinced, “Even the most minute detail matched up, even the smallest hairs on the beards matched up.”
Some experts think van Gogh used the camera obscura technique to trace the lines of his face matching the size of the forehead, the shape of the eyes and even individual hairs before painting his self portraits. In alignment tests conducted on images of the photo and van Gogh’s paintings the features certainly lined up.
Photo historian Joseph Buberger, who has also worked on identifying images of Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant believes without a doubt that the man in the photograph is van Gogh. Buberger goes even further stating it is entirely possible that van Gogh drew and painted his self-portraits based on this very photograph. He suggests van Gogh painted most of his self-portraits between 1886 and 1889 after the photo was taken in 1886.
And after searching through databases, Mr Buberger matched the photographer’s name, Victor Morin, with an old studio in Brussels, a city where van Gogh spent much of his time.
It certainly looks like a match but the debate continues. There is only one St Hyacinthe in the world and that is in Quebec, Canada. The name Morin & Messier and the address 42 Rue St Francois, St Hyacinthe are listed in a late 1800’s Canadian business directory. What are the chances of another photographer by the name Morin located at the same address in Brussels?
There are unanswered questions: how did this photograph end up in the archive of a French-Canadian photographer? Van Gogh never made it across the water to Canada. How did a Quebec-based photographer Victor Morin shoot a photo of Vincent van Gogh? Did he travel to Paris, shoot the photo there and then bring it back to Canada?
To add some spice to this perplexing question of authenticity…what if we could create a digital photo from one of van Gogh’s selfies? Well digital artist Tadao Cern has done just that with haunting results that lend convincingly to the theory that the man in the old Morin photo is indeed Vincent van Gogh.
Or is this all simply a case of mistaken identity?
“I myself still find photographs frightful and don’t like to have any, especially not of people whom I know and love.”
Vincent Van Gogh, to his sister Willemien, September 19, 1889.*