One of just two existing photographs of Vincent van Gogh is, in fact, a portrait of his brother Theo, new forensic research suggests.
The discovery suggests there is now only one verified photo of the camera shy Post-Impressonist – famed for his self-portraits and dreamlike landscapes of sunflowers or a starry night – taken when he was 19.
Until now, it was thought that a second photographic portrait of Vincent van Gogh aged 13 was also authentic.
It was first publicly presented at a 1957 exhibition organised by Belgian Van Gogh researcher Mark Edo Tralbaut and has since been used in countless biographies around the world.
Teio Meedendorp, Senior Researcher at the Van Gogh Museum, said: “There was never any immediate cause for doubt, precisely also because the boy in this photograph bears similarities to the portrait of the 19-year-old Vincent”.
But those doubts first appeared in 2014 over the boy in the photo when experimental technology was used in a Dutch documentary to compare the two photos and concluded they were two different people.
Separately, Yves Vasseur, a curator, noticed that the photographer who took the portrait, Balduin Schwarz, had only moved into his studio in Brussels in 1870, when Vincent was already 17 years old.
Mr Vasseur said he shared his doubts with the Van Gogh Museum and the two decided to collaborate to “solve this identity crisis once and for all”.
They realised that Theo had lived in Brussels in 1873 and from letters “he had a photograph of himself taken in February of that year”.
While the brothers looked alike with reddish blonde hair, Theo was “a little slenderer and had more delicate features, a high, straight forehead and light-blue eyes”, they found.
Mr Meedendorp said: ‘The light colour of Theo’s eyes is especially striking in the known photographs of him, and this can also be seen in the Schwarz portrait. This was another indication that the person in the portrait is probably Theo”.
To confirm their doubts, the Van Gogh Museum commissioned a forensic examination of the photograph that compared high-resolution copies of all known photographic portraits of Vincent and Theo, conducted by the University of Amsterdam’s informatics institute.
Axel Rüger, director of the Van Gogh museum, said: ‘This discovery means that we have rid ourselves of an illusion, while gaining a portrait of Theo.”
Willem van Gogh, great-grandson of Theo, said: ‘I was surprised to hear that this photograph is very likely to be of my great-grandfather Theo, and therefore not of Vincent, but I am pleased that the mystery has been solved.
“It is essential that Vincent van Gogh’s legacy is correctly passed on and preserved, and this research makes a significant contribution to such efforts.”