There are only three photographs in existence of Vincent van Gogh, one of the most famous painters of all time. The earliest one shows him with short, thick locks and rather soft features, a boy of thirteen who looks rather shyly into the camera. In the second photograph, which dates to the beginning of his apprenticeship as an art dealer, Vincent is nineteen, now grown up to be a young man, with a forceful demeanor and a prominent brow. The only picture that survives from van Gogh’s period of artistic creativity reveals little of the artist’s physiognomy. Vincent is seated at a little table on the bank of the Seine River with his friend, painter Emile Bernard, with his back to the observer.
Nonetheless, we have a fairly accurate picture of what van Gogh looked like. Artist friends such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Paul Gauguin made portraits of him. Most importantly, however, he painted himself time and time again, and to a large extent, it is these self-portraits that have shaped the public conception of van Gogh’s physical appearance. The images are noteworthy because they are certainly not realistic representations in terms of trompe l’oeil technique, but rather stylistic finger exercises, aesthetic statements, and self-analysis in equal measure. However, the fact that they replace a paucity of photographic evidence appears virtually emblematic for the awareness of van Gogh as a person and for the reception of his work. The artist’s life and work are so intertwined that were it not for his paintings, Vincent van Gogh might hardly emerge as a figure.
Paradoxically, the overlapping themes of his life and work are both the key to the “van Gogh phenomenon” and the prerequisite for the origin of the “Vincent myth.” But is was his sad tale of apparent insanity and of suicide that led him to become an idol in Parisian intellectual and artistic circles, a seeker of truth who gave up his life for art. This mystification also made van Gogh a candidate for more widespread fame, and thus the culture industry attended to it early on, and wrote the legend of the lonely genius painter on the brink of insanity. This cliche has lost very little of its attraction to this very day, despite the different picture that has emerged in recent decades as a result of scholarly research into van Gogh’s life.