The Mystery of Vincent van Gogh’s Photos

Zuzanna Stańska 11 July 2023 min Read

Vincent van Gogh famously recorded himself in numerous self-portraits, but he hated photography and supposedly he never sat for a photo as an adult. Discover the mysterious story of Van Gogh’s photos!

There is only one photo of the artist as a teenager that is known to exist. The photograph below was thought to depict Vincent van Gogh, but recent research showed that it is in fact his brother, Theo.

Theo van Gogh, 1873. Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

The photo that actually portrays Vincent is below. It was taken when the artist was 19 years old. At that time he was working in an art dealership in The Hague.

Vincent van Gogh at age 19.
Vincent van Gogh at age 19, 1873. Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

He was a handsome young man, wasn’t he?

There is also another famous, mysterious photo. This one:

Who's that guy?
Brussels clergymen circa 1886, with some unlikely claims that this is a portrait of Van Gogh. Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

This photo was never officially confirmed to be of van Gogh. “Officially” means that the Van Gogh Museum has not authenticated it. On top of that, there is another problem with it – the address below the photo marks a Canadian location, and Van Gogh obviously never lived outside of Europe.

But look at this comparison:

Find 5 differences
Right: Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait, 1887, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL, USA. Detail; Left: Brussels clergymen circa 1886, with some unlikely claims that this is a portrait of Van Gogh. Wikimedia Commons (public domain). Detail.

The portrait you see on the right is an oil painting by Van Gogh, completed in December 1886. The photograph (on the left) was also taken in 1886. Weird similarity, isn’t it?

Jules Antoine, Vincent Van Gogh in conversation with friends, Paris, 96 rue Blanche, December 1887, “Gautier Martin” stamp, recto.
Jules Antoine, Vincent Van Gogh in conversation with friends, 1887, Paris, 96 rue Blanche, December. Pinterest.

Also, recently a melainotype from 1887 showing six men drinking around a table was discovered. It may include a rare sighting of Vincent with Paul Gauguin (at far right) and Émile Bernard (second from the left). However, the photo expert at the Van Gogh Museum said it can’t be the artist “because it simply does not look like him”. Others note that Van Gogh never mentions the gathering in his letters in which he described all the details of his life. The photograph was put up for auction but it did not meet its asking price of $136,000.

Even more recently, Italian art historian Antonio De Robertis claimed to identify Vincent in this Edmond Bénard photo of 34 men posing together at the Académie Julian in Paris in 1888. According to De Robertis, the men in the photograph include Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard, as well as Andries Bonger, friend and brother-in-law to Theo van Gogh.

Group shot, 1888.
Group shot with a possible image of Vincent van Gogh circled, 1888. Independent.

However, this is another unconfirmed likeness.

So, if we don’t have any photos and cannot be sure what van Gogh looked like as an adult, what do we have?

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat, 1887, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands.

We have 34 painted self-portraits and 4 drawings. That’s quite a number!


Black Matrilineage, Photography, and Representation: Another Way of Knowing, edited by Lesly Deschler Canossi and Zoraida Lopez-Diago, Leuven University Press, 2022 (cover image) Photography

Black Motherhood in Photography: Book Review of Black Matrilineage, Photography, and Representation

Black Matrilineage, Photography, and Representation: Another Way of Knowing by co-editors Lesly Deschler Canossi and Zoraida Lopez-Diago of the...

Jennifer S. Musawwir 27 February 2023

Henri Manuel, Marie Curie in her laboratory, located rue Cuvier, 1908, Musée Curie, Paris, France. Photography

Marie Curie – Portraits of the Double Nobel Prize Winner

Marie Skłodowska-Curie is arguably the most famous female scientist in history and one of the most accomplished scientists ever. Since she was a...

Jimena Escoto 11 February 2023

Arpita Shah Modern Muse Photography

Modern Muse: Arpita Shah’s Feminist Take on Mughal Portraiture

Staging an intervention in art history, and specifically in Indian miniature portraiture, Arpita Shah replaces male Mughal emperors with inspiring...

Guest Profile 3 September 2023

spirit victorian photography Photography

The Spectacle of Victorian Spirit Photography

Is seeing believing? In 19th-century London, this question captivated everyone who entered Frederick Hudson’s spirit photography studio—from...

Emily Snow 20 December 2022