Both paintings were traditionally regarded as self-portraits, but in 1958 De la Faille raised doubts about cat. 122. Working on the premise that it would have been very odd if Vincent had never painted his brother during the two years he lived with him in Paris, he suggested that this was a portrait of Theo. There was a close resemblance between the brothers, as Jo van Gogh-Bonger noted in 1914, the main difference being that her husband was ‘more delicately built and his features were more refined, but he had the same reddish fair complexion’.
Vincent Willem van Gogh, Theo’s son, dismissed De la Faille’s theory, and the question of whether one of Van Gogh’s supposed painted self-portraits is in fact a portrait of his brother has never been posed since. We agree that it is not relevant in the case of all the self-portraits – apart from this pair. The two men differ far more from each other than do any other stylistically related self-portraits by Van Gogh. To put it another way: if these are the portraits of one and the same person, that is to say Vincent, it is incomprehensible that there should be such a great differences in facial appearance, given the similarities in style and degree of detail. That is difficult to explain, which suggests that the opposing view that these are two different people, Theo and Vincent, is far more logical. The question is: does anything else point in that direction, and if so, can we work out who is who?
The differences are quite striking. The man with the straw hat and stiff bow tie has blue eyes, an ochre-coloured beard without side whiskers, and a remarkably round shell of his ear (cat. 121).The person with the felt hat and floppy bow tie has light, greyish blue eyes, a bright orange beard and cheeks that look rather more sunken (cat. 122). Beneath their jackets with piping around the edges is a waistcoat with red edging. The floppy bow tie was a little more common in artistic circles, but apart from that this was normal middle-class attire. What is unusual is the combination of the informal straw hat with the formal bow tie. The clothing worn by both men is unusual for Vincent, or at least for the Vincent we know from the self-portraits. Some show him with a straw hat and a blue jacket with piping, and in several he wears a grey felt hat, but he never portrayed himself in a light greyish pink jacket or with a bow tie. So the comparison with the clothes Vincent is wearing is of no help, but a comparison of the heads with those of the two brothers is. A self-portrait from the first half of 1887 (fig. 121e) shows Van Gogh with the same sunken cheeks as in cat. 122, so we can take it that this is his own likeness, as already asserted by Theo’s son. That would mean that the other man is Theo, but are there any firm indications that it is?
The ear of the man in cat. 121 has a beautiful round shell, and that is certainly not what Vincent’s ears looked like. He had fleshy earlobes and a lot of cartilage (figs. 121f, 121g). Theo, on the other hand, had round ears (fig. 121h), so could very well be the man in the straw hat (cat. 121). As luck would have it there is a second clue to his identity. The man in that portrait has no side whiskers, and we know that Theo did not have any either. Vincent had a natural, unruly beard, as can be seen from the self-portraits, whereas Theo trimmed his and either shaved his cheeks or had no hair growth there. That is how he appears in photographs from 1889 (figs. 121i, 121j), and in drawings by Joseph Isaäcson and Meijer de Haan from 1888-89 (figs. 121k, 121l).
That these two men are indeed Theo and Vincent is confirmed by the different colour of their beards. Vincent himself said that he had ‘a very red beard’ [letter 626], and always painted it a bright orange after embracing the modern movement in the winter of 1886/87. That is also the colour of the beard of the man in the grey felt hat (cat. 122), which also argues for Vincent as the sitter. The beard of the man in the other portrait, though, is not orange but more ochre in colour, and interestingly enough that matches Jo’s description of the two brothers’ hair colour. She did not know Vincent well, but Theo she did, and said that his was ‘reddish fair’. That may seem to resolve the problem, but it does not do so entirely. The colour of the men’s eyes contradicts this identification. Theo’s are bright blue (cat. 121) while Vincent’s are light greyish blue. Neither colour matches what we know about their eyes. According to Jo, Theo had ‘the same light blue eyes [as Vincent] which sometimes darkened to a greenish-blue’ but that is certainly not true of Vincent’s eyes. They were not light blue but green. That, at any rate, is how he described them in a letter from Arles, and it is how he depicted them consistently from his first attempts at self-portraits in 1886 right up to those from 1889, in which he always gave his irises a greenish hue.
This seems problematic, but there is an explanation for the different eye colours – an artistic one. In Theo’s portrait he probably adjusted the colour of the eyes to match that of the blue background, just as he did not always give his own eyes the same hue of green in the self-portraits, but varied it according to the colour scheme he had chosen. His decision to give himself light blue and not green eyes in cat. 122 is odder. There are no other examples of this, but it turns out that the reason is again an artistic one. The main colours in this portrait are light blue and pale pink, which are rather unusual for Van Gogh, and there was no reason to add green to the colour scheme apart from in the eyes. The latter was evidently not an option, so he omitted green from the palette entirely and gave his eyes the colour of the background, as he had done with Theo’s – in his case a greyish light blue.
Finally, if one accepts this identification one sees that the attire of the two men matches their social status. Vincent is wearing an artistic bow tie while Theo has a formal one. One element that is still strange, though, is Theo’s straw hat, but that was probably a joke that was echoed in Vincent’s self-portrait. He depicted himself with a felt hat, but we know from Andries Bonger that it was not his own hat but Theo’s. Vincent did own a straw hat, which was a common item of apparel for artists working out of doors, and it very much looks as if the brothers are wearing each other’s hats.