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Van Gogh group photo Theatre Libre

Van Gogh or not Van Gogh, that is the question.

by VanGoghology

Is it conceivable that this is a snapshot depicting Vincent van Gogh? Why yes. The question of whether the individual positioned third from the left is Van Gogh or not has been a subject of discussion for years and has received extensive coverage from numerous media sources.

VanGoghology experts believe that this is indeed Vincent.

The photograph, captured in December 1887, is a melanotype, which is a form of metal plate photography introduced in 1853 and became increasingly popular during the late 1800s and early 1900s. The reverse is stamped “Gautier Martin breveté” – the front is stamped “Gautier Martin patented SGDG”.

Several well-known figures are featured in the image, which is said to have been discovered in the 1920s in the archive of a Paris bookdealer (most likely Ronald Davis, though unconfirmed) and fortuitously unearthed again by two 19th-century art enthusiasts at an estate sale in 2013.

The French Photography Magazine, L’Oeil de la Photographie, reported on the find in 2015 when one of its writers, photo specialist Serge Plantureux, was asked to identify the individuals pre-auction, where it was expected to fetch between $136,000 and $170,000. The photograph failed to sell and was later sold to a collector in Manhattan.

The small photograph, which measures just 8.8 by 11.9 centimeters, was reviewed by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, which disputes it as being their namesake, stating “it simply doesn’t look like him”.

Théâtre-Libre image of Van Gogh

Visual of the original image

This image’s immense curiosity stems from a desire to uncover any potential visual documentation of Vincent van Gogh, offering a glimpse into his physical appearance beyond the iconic self-portraits he painted during his lifetime. Only a single adult portrait of Vincent exists, captured at the age of 19, and his expression reveals a profound dislike for photography. Perhaps the very reason he is not looking at the camera in this questionable image surrounded by friends.

Seated to Vincent’s right (our left), we see his two great friends, Arnold Koning and Émile Bernard. Standing is the founder of the Théâtre-Libre, André Antoine., and to his left is politician, painter, and close friend of both Tanguy and Gauguin, Armand Félix Marie Jobbé-Duval. Paul Gauguin is seated opposite Bernard. The man behind the camera would be André’s brother, artist, art critic, and photographer, Jules Antoine.

Time for some investigative reporting.

We must consider various factors to further our investigation, such as the time period in which the photograph was taken, the location of where it was captured, and Vincent’s acquaintances in 1887.

We know, for example, that he lived in Paris in 1887, having relocated from Antwerp to Paris in February 1886 and subsequently departed for Arles in February 1888. During a span of two years, he shared an apartment in the Montmartre district with his brother Theo. First at 25 Rue Laval (now Victor Massé), and in June, having moved into a larger apartment a half a mile away, at 54 Rue Lepic.

In between these two streets, located at 62 Boulevard de Clichy, you would find ‘Le Tambourin’, owned by Vincent’s brief love interest, Agostina Segatori, where he often dined and decorated the walls with his paintings.

‘Seurat’s studio’, which Vincent visited, was on the opposite side of the Blvd. at 128 Bis Boulevard de Clichy. ‘Tasset et Lhôte’, a primary source of art supplies for Vincent, was situated nearby at rue Pierre Fontaine 3. ‘Cormon’s studio’, where he spent three months studying and met Toulouse-Lautrec, John Peter Russell, and Émile Bernard, was also in close proximity at 104 Boulevard de Clichy. ‘Chez Bataille’, the cheap cafe where Vincent, Theo, and Andries Bonger would frequent; ‘Julien Tanguy’s’ paint shop was a block from Rue Laval; and the Théâtre Libre rehearsal studio, where this iconic picture was captured, was situated 0.3 miles from Vincent and Theo’s apartment on rue Lepic.

The actors of the Théâtre Libre rehearsed wherever they could find space, a tavern, or a friend’s apartment more often. On September 1, 1887, Antoine mentioned the move to 96 Rue Blanche, stating that it is a large studio with a private stairway at the back of the courtyard and a pleasant smoking room.

Theatre-Libre-map Paris Van Gogh or not Van Gogh, that is the question.

96 rue Blanche, which was a former milliner’s workshop, became the new rehearsal studio located just south of the Blvd de Clichy (5-minute walking distance to Rue Lepic). The theater itself was located at 37 Passage de l’Élysée des Beaux-Arts (now 37 rue André Antoine). Georges Seurat lived at No. 39. (although from 1890).

The theater was the first free theater in Paris and showcased avant-garde naturalistic dramas, which other theaters would often censor. Christ’s Lover by Rodolphe Darzens, Tolstoy’s The Power of Darkness, and the dramatization of Émile Zola’s scandalous novel Thérèse Raquin.

Emile Zola, a favored author of Vincent, frequently attended the Théâtre-Libre. In fact, Zola had several of his books adapted into plays for the stage. Antoine’s motivation to establish his own theater company sprang from his desire to adapt Thérèse Raquin into a dramatic production. 

Le Cri du Peuple (The Cry of the People) published a letter from Antoine to Paul Alexis, aka Trublot, on September 7, 1887. The letter urged young painters to showcase their artwork at the rehearsal studio of Théâtre-Libre. Antoine declares that he has sixty or eighty square meters of wall to decorate in the rehearsal room.

Van Gogh responded and exhibited ‘Garden with Courting Couples: Square Saint-Pierre‘ along with his plein air companions, Paul Signac, and Georges Seurat.

The cry of the people

I have sixty or eighty square meters of wall to decorate in the rehearsal room. I’ve also been thinking about the other young people, those who sometimes paint or sculpt wonders and keep them in their attics. Would you like to appeal to them in your Cry?

At my place, they’ll come and hang the finished canvas, and as I’ll have a coming and going of chic people, it will be a very modest exhibition, but perhaps a useful one. Remember that I already have princes and millionaires on my subscription list. All it will take is for a piece of canvas to catch their eye, and they’ll buy it. The artists will remove it when they please.

Isn’t that a good idea? And that it might be useful for everyone? I don’t need managers, I want to keep this Théâtre-Libre headquarters, purely artistic and not at all bourgeois. – We’ll be doing artistic things in all sorts of ways. – Let these young people get in touch with me, a piece of letter rue de Dunkeraue 42. isn’t it?

Thank you very much,



See what’s going on, my son.

Here’s a guy who deserves to succeed, and who will succeed, I predict. He’s got great ideas, extraordinary organizational skills and a will of his own, I’m telling you. You wouldn’t believe that in the year since Théâtre Libre was founded, its secretary has written as much as fifteen hundred bulletin boards.

Judge for yourself.

Yes, painters – and sculptors too – will not fail to embellish the seat of our Théâtre-Libre. Mezigue guarantees impressions.


Édouard Vuillard, Alexandre Charpentier, Henri Rivière, Signac, Henri-Gabriel Ibels, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec created playbills and posters.

Une_faillite-poster Toulouse-LautrecClearly, the Théâtre Libre rehearsal studio is the major component linking Vincent to this photograph. 

At the time, Gauguin was boarding with Émile Schuffenecker at 29 Rue Boulard near Montparnasse, a little under five miles from Rue Blanche. Gauguin was in Paris between mid-November and January 26, 1888. Émile Bernard was living at No. 5 Avenue de Beaulieu, Asnières, which was approximately 3.5 miles away. Arnold Koning had spent nine months in Paris during this time and exhibited with Vincent on the Petit Blvd. After Vincent left for Arles in February 1888, Koning moved in with Theo at Rue Lepic. 

Let’s recap:

  • Right place, right time.
  • Minutes from Van Gogh’s apartment on rue Lepic.
  • Surrounded by friends.
  • Call to action for artists to exhibit at the location photograph was taken.
  • Hair line is definitely the same as Vincent’s.
  • Smoking a pipe, which Vincent certainly did day and night.
  • The jacket appears to be the same as seen in many of his portraits.
  • Disinterested in having a photo taken.
  • Admirer of Emile Zola’s work
  • The photographer was a friend of Theo’s.

Vincent, Gauguin, Koning, Bernard, Jobbé-Duval, and Antoine had ample justification for organizing this gathering. 

Vincent is wearing his famous one-buttoned jacket as seen in several of his self-portraits. Also present on the table is the same fur hat he wore in Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear. 

The Painter of Sunflowers

The Painter of Sunflowers

The Painter of Sunflowers – Gauguin 1888. Vincent’s hairline is exactly the same as how Gauguin depicted it.

Many people have noted (and the Van Gogh Museum appears to do this often), that there is no written documentation of the meeting by Vincent. However, such a situation wouldn’t arise given that Vincent and Theo were living together. Between February 1886 and December 1887, there were only ten letters, two of which were penned in December 1887 and written to those present: Bernard and Gauguin.

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