Some experts believe this recently discovered 1887 melainotype showing six men drinking around a table may include a rare sighting of painter Vincent van Gogh. Van Gogh famously recorded himself in numerous self-portraits, but was known to abhor photography and supposedly never sat for a photo as an adult; only two rare photos of the artist as a child are known to exist, taken when he was 13 and 19.
The image first came to the attention of French photo expert Serge Plantureux when two individuals acquired the photo at an estate sale and thought they recognized a few of the faces, among them, artists Paul Gauguin and Emile Bernard—a significant discovery in and of itself. Analyzing the photographic process, the photographer (thought to be to Jules Antoine), and pinpointing the when the photo was taken raised the chances significantly that a bearded figure who appears amongst the gathering of stoic men might be Van Gogh. Serge Plantureux writes for magazine L’Oeil de la Photographie (The Eye of Photography):
The photograph they had brought to show me was small, dark, and rather difficult to see. Six characters were around a table. The light was pale, perhaps it was a winter afternoon.
They told me, still hesitant, that they thought they recognized the people in it, artists in whom they had long been interested. They were collectors and liked the painters of the late 19th century, in particular the neo-impressionists. They also said it was possible that one of the figures around the table was someone whose true face had never been seen.
The photo went to auction just this weekend and was expected to fetch between $136,000 to $170,000, though a final sale price hasn’t been made public. Still, some experts aren’t convinced. The photo expert for the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam feels it can’t be the artist “because it simply does not look like him,” and also mentions the artist’s desire to never be photographed. Others note that Van Gogh didn’t mention the gathering in his meticulously written letters from the time period.
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