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Rediscovering Van Gogh.

An air of mystery and fascination has surrounded Vincent Van Gogh ever since his death. The artist’s work has commanded astronomical sums at auction, and his mental state has been the subject of discussion and debate for over a hundred years. Until today, the only photographs that existed of Van Gogh were from his teenage years. But even these are the subject of debate — are they really of Vincent, or are they of another Van Gogh? A definitive answer remains elusive.

In Brussels around 1886, photographer Victor Morin took a number of photographs of local clergymen. Among these photos was a portrait of a man who bears an uncanny resemblance to the figure in many of Van Gogh’s self-portraits, leading some to speculate that this photo might be of the artist himself.

Before this time of this photograph, Vincent’s self portraits were obviously “eyeballed” (to commandeer David Hockney’s phrase) and did not have a strong sense of realism. However, subsequent self-portraits were as close to photo-realism as impressionist paintings could be. Is it possible that Van Gogh used Morin’s photograph as a guide to painting these new, realistic self-portraits? Some experts now believe that the artist may, in fact, have used the photo along with optical projection as a guide when creating these paintings. This possibility is underscored by the fact that when the Morin photograph and some of Van Gogh’s self portraits are overlaid, the close resemblance is hard to deny. If this newly found photograph does indeed turn out to be of the adult Van Gogh, and if it could be proven that optical projection was used by this great impressionist, the implications could change art history.


Without the benefit of electricity and with only a simple piece of glass or a mirror, an artist could create a “camera” which would reflect the image he wanted to paint onto a canvas or a piece of paper. This is the underlining principle in David Hockney’s Secret Knowledge.

Although Van Gogh’s self-portraits do not have the same photographic verisimilitude as some of the painting examples in Hockney’s book and film, they do pose a similar question: Why were some of Van Gogh’s self-portraits and the portrait of his mother so much more detailed and “real” looking than his other portraits of the time? Because of the impressionistic nature of Van Gogh’s paintings, we can’t take advantage of clues similar to those that Hockney found in some of the paintings of the old masters, such as out-of-focus objects in the paintings similar to those in photographs, or strong lighting features (‘sun on the face’) that would result from the use of a camera obscura — but the remarkable similarities in detail and composition between the paintings and the photos are strong evidence that Van Gogh’s use of some sort of optical aids in these instances can not be easily ruled out.

We took a copy of the painting and overlaid the photograph of Van Gogh's mother several times, each with increasing transparency. The results were astonishing. The face in the photo and in the painted image are exact matches. Did Van Gogh want such a perfect painting of his mother that he used optics as an aid in tracing the photograph onto canvas?


If Van Gogh used optics to trace his image from the photograph, how could he have done it? Techniques for optically transferring an image include using glass (a primitive lens), a concave mirror (another primitive lens), or a camera obscura or camera lucida. Van Gogh could have used any of these to project his photo onto canvas for tracing. Roger Vaughan, of The Camera Lucida Company in Great Britain, sent us a camera lucida to try some experiments for ourselves. We took the camera lucida and used it to make the sketch below from the Van Gogh photograph.

Camera lucida tracing of the Van Gogh photograph laid over the Saint-Rémy self-portrait with 50% opacity. The tracing is directly taken from the photograph except that the right eye was adjusted so that it's looking at the viewer as in Van Gogh's many self-portraits.

Note that it would take great skill and talent to take a sketch like this and make a worthwhile painting from it. We do not imply that Van Gogh cheated by using optics or that using optics in any way would diminish his accomplishments. Projection of a source image is merely both a short cut and a way to help assure that everything is in perspective, thus creating a more life-like painting. Using optics is similar to a carpenter using a nail gun rather than a hammer to drive nails —it doesn’t make the carpenter’s work inferior, but it allows it to be completed in less time.


For the last thirty-five years, Joseph Buberger’s vocation has been the history of photography. His studies include most of the 19th century and early 20th century photographic processes, starting with images done in 1839. Many of the images Buberger has discovered have been published and now belong to major institutions. He has daguerreotypes in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of fine art in Houston, and others.

Twenty years ago, Buberger became involved in identifying photographs of well-know people in history. He came across a daguerreotype of Ulysses S. Grant, a younger, different looking Grant than the one we are familiar with from the fifty-dollar bill. His job was to authenticate the photo.

Alan Phillips, a friend of Buberger, was one of the first people involved in creating a forensic overlay of the Grant photo, (a time-consuming process before the advent of digital tools such as Photoshop). Alan is now the correction-imaging manager at the Wadsworth Atheneum, the oldest public art museum in America.

When the Van Gogh photograph came into Buberger’s hands, Philips was already doing the initial forensic work. These results convinced Buberger that this indeed was a photograph of Vincent Van Gogh. Subsequently, Buberger exhibited the Van Gogh photograph at the Seton Gallery University of New Haven in the Henry Lee Institute of Forensic Sciences. Dr. Albert Harper, the Executive Director of the Henry Lee Institute of Forensic Sciences, is also an investigator specializing in forensic anthropology. Dr. Harper sponsored the exhibition, as it is his belief that the photograph is indeed that of Vincent Van Gogh.

The Van Gogh photograph, 4 ½ x 6 ½” has been authenticated as being taken between the years of 1885 and 1890 based on the thickness of the cabinet card as well as the materials that were used from that period. One of the first experiments was to take a self-portrait sketch of Van Gogh (Paris, summer 1887, lead pencil and India Ink on paper, 31.6 x 24.1 cm, Amsterdam) and overlay the drawing with the photograph. The two were a close match.

In a letter to Buberger from Van Gogh scholar Pascal Bonafoux, author of the quintessential tome Van Gogh: Self Portraits, Bonafoux writes, “Your discovery is fantastic!!! … Looking at this photograph, I have no doubt: this man is Vincent himself.” “But,” author of The Van Gogh Files, Ken Wilkie asks, “how did this photograph end up in the archive of a French-Canadian photographer [Victor Morin]?”

Where did this photograph come from? An antique dealer in Massachusetts purchased an album of photographs by the late Morin. These photographs consisted mainly of clergymen, and the album was taken apart and the photos sold separately. While artist Tom Stanford was thumbing through the photos in the dealer’s shop, he recognized the photo of Van Gogh immediately. He purchased it for one dollar. How did Quebec-based photographer Victor Morin shoot a photo of Vincent Van Gogh? And what was Van Gogh's photo doing among photos of clergymen? These are two questions we will return to in part two of our article in the next issue of Seventh Hour Blues.


The summary article above, written by Anthony Sapienza, originally appeared in full-length format in the premiere issue of Seventh Hour Blues, a music & arts magazine.

Anthony, the writer and publisher of the Seventh Hour Blues, graciously provided us with the condensed copy and images for republication in Neatorama.

For more on the Van Gogh story, including detailed comparative studies and more images, download the issue (available as PDF copy.)

We urge you to check out Seventh Hour Blues: the impressive first issue is loaded with exclusive interviews with Buddy Guy, Bob Weir, Otis Rush and a never-before-published interview with the Reverend Gary Davis! As if that's not enough, your purchase will also include bonus music tracks and exclusive videos.

Update 11/27/06: Svend Erik Hendriksen of the Greenland Art Review wrote:

I actually think it’s possible to prove that Vincent van Gogh used optical auxiliary tools.

A few examples all diggers are left-handed, look at all his drawings, watercolour and painting with diggers 85% seems to be left-handed. So unless 85 % of the Dutch population are left-handed, something is awful wrong.

Ps. On his self-portraits at the easel from 1886, 1888 and 1889 he represent himself as a left-hander.

Thanks Svend!

Update 11/28/06: Sven added more stuff about Van Gogh:

Here the three self-portraits at the easel from 1886, 1888 and 1889

1) On the 1886 painting it looks like he holds the palette in his right hand (but no fix point to verify it), the painting is not included in the permanent exhibition at VGM in Amsterdam

2) No doubt about he hold the palette in his right hand (buttons on men’s clothes always fixed to the right side)

3) He cut his left ear 23rd December in Arles and you see a perfect non defect ear, he holds his palette in his right hand.

The two self-portraits were (so to speak) painted simultaneous in 1889 according to a letter send to Theo van Gogh. Both paintings are mirrored (reflected from a mirror).

On his portrait of Dr. Felix Ray, Vincent was the sitter for the body and he just put Felix Rey’s head on top of it. Very funny…He started painting it few days after he left the hospital, so Dr. Felix Rey was not the sitter

This article really is a lot of nonsense, isn't it? I mean... I love a good DaVinci codeish yarn as much as the next guy, but this one isn't even the least bit reasonable.

First of all, Van Gogh wasn't in Brussels in 1886, allthough he was in Antwerp, (which I understand is only about 30 miles away) being too broke to even take a short ride in a taxi.

Van Gogh was 33 years old in 1886 and obviously much younger than the man in the photo, even by 19th century standards of aging.

The article also states that prior to this, Van Gogh's self portraits "did not have a strong sense of realism" whereas "subsequent self-portraits were as close to photo-realism as impressionist paintings could be". This is not so. He was always able to do naturalistic studies, but his personal style (obviously) evolved more later in life, bringing him if anything further away from a naturalistic approach.

"If this newly found photograph does indeed turn out to be of the adult Van Gogh, and if it could be proven that optical projection was used by this great impressionist, the implications could change art history". M'kay, but where does this talk of projection come into it? Wouldn't he be a lot more likely to just hold the photo in his hand and look at it? That's what I would have done. The older duch painters used another much simpler method of transfer by simply drawing a grid on the original sketch and then an identical grid on the canvas into which one could then manually copy the contents of each small square without worrying about the overall form being off.

What kind of projection system would he have used? One that could illuminate and enlarge a non-transparent photograph onto a canvas. It would have to be a closed light-sealed system working in a dimly lit room. How could poor old Vincent afford anything like that?

It is quite possible that Van Gogh tried using a photo as a source for some experiments. His friend Gaugin painted Tahiti women back in france from photographs shot by some other guy. Contemporaries like Degas often did the same. The simplest explanation for why Van Gogh would have used a photo to paint his mother is that she was living in another part of the country and he was likely to have had a photo of her with him.

He is a lot less likely to have had a photo of himself tho. Like I said before, Van Gogh was very poor. And he was an unusually ugly man, unlike the man in the photo.

I think the "forensic" evidence in this case is a desire to discover something in a thrift store. To be able to contribute to art history's view of European painters without leaving the old neighborhood in Massachusetts. (Or do something complicated like studying). And to be able to sell it later on e-Bay. The guy in the photo really doesn't even look that much like Van Gogh.
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What the problem is, is that the whole article has not been published here. If you read it in it's entirety, you will see that all all doubt will be erased -- for many more in-depth studies which are present in the article are not presented here. For one, the image of Vincent could have been projected using a simple hand-held mirror. If you overlay the tracing of Van Gogh's portrait, you'll also find it's an EXACT match for the painting. There are also some fascinating comparisons of Vincent's work prior to the photograph and also after. There are also very important letters from Vincent himself which lend credence to the story. I highly recommend checking it out: or you can grab a copy on Amazon.
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I think that it is possible that the photo might be of Vincent.We have to remember that he was living with a bad case of depression,probably hunger at the best of times-and the hard core drinking of an alcoholic.If I could assume -he probably earned his keep in many places working outdoors under the hot sun as a labourer,where the suns rays can prematurely age skin.Not to forget,his system was also drained by the std's of his time-all helping him age beyond the average stereo typed 30' something middle class male.The eyes in the photo appear to be light in color,which can belong to a red headed person.

I think we have to remember that life is not about the amount of breaths we take,it is about the amount of times our breath was taken away.I believe Vincent tried to share that with us,and if he used a grid,or a photo or even a chunk of glass to help him on his self taught journey-so be it.Let sleeping dogs lie.
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How can you possibly say vincent was left handed when gouguin did a portrait of him clearly showing that he is right handed! why would he put the paint brush in his right hand if he wasn't right handed????
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Since you are interested in Vincent’s life and work, you might want to look at the Notes section on I am the writer and director of the new independent film on his life.
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Van Gogh was a great artist, and it doesn't matter much to me whether he "eyeballed" or "traced" to create his paintings...but that's just my personal opinion. I don't think you can completely discredit the evidence laid out by this article, although we may never know for sure if Van Gogh used projection to create art or not.
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Van Gogh is a brilliant artist. It doesn't matter if he used a short cut or what-nots. It may only prove that most likely, many other artists could have tried it just as well. And so what used a different method for some of his works? He probably experimented, and some of it worked for him. He feverishly painted around 900 paintings and more than 1,000 sketches/drawings in the last 10 years of his life. Give the man a break.

Besides, Vincent isn't just famous because of his uncanny "exact" resemblence of pictures, people, or places to his arwork. He's also famous because of his determination to find love, being accepted, and at what extent he took himself to try and get there.


And this is one of the many reasons why the world adores him so much.
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people really do wanna believe that tracing is the only way to get to get decent results, dont they?

there are letter where vincent asked for, then talked about his study of Charles Bargue plates which explains to young artist how to get proportions for mass and shadows. at that time they were said to have been taught even in high schools.
the examples they give here aren't too convincing since some major proportions are rather off.

has anyone considered that his drinking may have effect his motor skills from time to time?
it may explain why some were so sloppy and others weren't too bad.
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I thought that David Hockney's absurd assertions about the Old Masters were bad, but this is worse. The images that are supposedly so close as to prove tracing aren't remotely similar with the exception of the fact that they are different pictures of the same person and not even all that similar renderings.

It is also downright weird that the author claims that Van Gogh's paintings were realistic when they are so clearly not, in fact, his lack of realistic rendering is what some people prize his work for so much. Personally, I don't think there's much artistic value in his work at all. He just became famous for being mentally disturbed and now we are supposed to think that he was a genius somehow.

Anyway, this theory that the only way to create realistic images (which Van Gogh's certainly were not)is to use some kind of optical tracing device is false as can be seen by anyone who even looks at these images and as can be demonstrated by just looking at what actual contemporary realist artists do in their studios every day. I wrote a more detailed critique of the Hockney theory at and Dr. David Stork pretty much put the issue to bed in his own studies (including a nice piece in Scientific American) which you can look up at and
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There is a resemblance. But, after seeing one of Vincent's paintings of his "twin", Alexander Reid, I have to say I have to wait for further proof that the photo is really Vincent. Perhaps a photograph of Alexander Reid may be helpful.
In particular, the eyes don't look right to me. Especially in John Peter Russell's painting of Vincent. By all accounts this painting was the best likeness of Vincent. Doesn't look much like the photo to me.
The eyes look more like Theo's, very pale, not like the photo of Vincent as a teenager.
If you want to see a photo that looks more like Vincent, look at one of George Auriol (Jean-George Huyot). I thought I'd discovered a photo of Vincent and Theo at Chat Noir, but, no, it was George and Narcisse Lebeau.
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If your interested in the live and work of Vincent van Gogh you should visit the web community Tracing Vincent:

Loads of information about Vincent, his great work and lots more. You can even vote on your favorite painting :-)

- Rianne
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Regarding Van Gogh's self portrait and the use of a photograph: Because the self portrait was done using his reflection in a mirror a photograph would not have helped as his portrait should have been a mirror image of his true self. However, if the self portrait corresponds directly to the photograph, it seems likely that he used the photograph and not the mirror to paint his picture. Hope this makes sense to the reader.
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I believe Van Gogh painted with his right hand. His self portrait shows him with the brushes in his left hand because it looked that way in the mirror he was looking at. Also, one of his self portraits shows his right ear covered when in actuality he cut his left ear. Again, the portrait is a mirror image of himself.
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I think if, even after more than 120 years, people still discuss the things Van Gogh did, he did something worth talking about.

If you like his work or not, it is different. And it does make a statement.

Is there ANYTHING we've done as individuals that will be talked about in 120 years?
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In a book of Clergymen? Not so absurd, if you know prior to becoming an artist he studied to be a clergyman.
The use of a mirror reverses left and right. It matters not how he got where he went, with or without opitcal devises, any more than if he walked or trotted to where he would paint. The thing that matters is the art. Wish we'd spend more time getting the color reproduced correctly. That matters
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I don't see any reprints or messages about Van Gogh paintings that contain the letters CVWG in the lower right corner (looking at the watercolor. I have one of signed le ponte de langlis? Arles ann signed Vincent Its the one with the drawbridge and woman washing. It has a very old worn fram with a green foil sticker with the name S.TRACHTENBURG? ANY INFO
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I realize that this post is 3 years old but I have to comment. Who says the photographer was in Belgium?

Place du Marche, St. Hyacinthe is actually in Quebec, Canada. A quick look at proves Morin was a working photographer in St. Hyacinthe in 1901.

That sort of make all the above speculation.

Believe none of what you hear and (less than) half of what you see
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