Van Gogh’s Portrait of Alexander Reid (1887)

One of Vincent van Gogh's first portraits in France, other than a self-portrait, was of the Scottish art dealer and flat-mate of the Van Gogh brothers, Alexander Reid. He stayed with Vincent and Theo for six months. Users of this site will already know how commonly great artists alter the features of their sitter to resemble their own self-portraits. In this case, though, the issue is complicated by a report long after Vincent had died that Vincent and Reid really were like twins, a remark that Martin Bailey suspects may have been exaggerated.1

They look so alike, at least in their portraits, that this painting was once listed as a self-portrait until the sitter's son recognize his father.2 This does not mean, of course, that Vincent did not alter anything. Sometimes his own eyes are blue in self-portraits, sometimes green and the shape of his nose is endlessly varied. (See Van Gogh's Nose.) Disregarding eyes and nose, they still both share red beards which in itself is not so common. There thus can be little doubt that Vincent welcomed, or even chose, Reid as his model because they looked alike. Bailey thinks this portrait of Reid resembles Van Gogh more than the only other one he painted, a difference suggesting perhaps that Van Gogh did make changes.3 It does not really matter. Either way Reid here is "Vincent Van Gogh" with green eyes to signal the fertility of Vincent's imagination.

See conclusion below

Captions for image(s) above:

 

Van Gogh, Portrait of Alexander Reid (1887)

Click image to enlarge.

However much, or little, the two men actually resembled each other, Vincent's portrait is additional evidence that great painters, consciously and intentionally, "paint themselves".

Notes:

1. Martin Bailey, "Vincent van Gogh's portraits of Alexander Reid", Burlington Magazine, Feb. 2006, p. 117

2. Historians assume that Reid and Vincent strongly resembled one another based on the visual evidence. However, the contemporary only said that the two of them going around town together "could have been twins", a remark which does not necessarily mean that their faces were similar. Archibald Standish Hartrick, A Painter's Pilgrimage Through 50 Years (Cambridge University Press) 1939, pp.50-1 cited in Vincent Van Gogh (Skira) 2010, p.254

3. Bailey, ibid., pp. 118-9

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