Here’s a hot new conspiracy theory for you: Was Vincent van Gogh really… Vincent van Gogh? The famous artist was once close friends with Scottish art dealer Alexander Reid, and the two looked so much alike that van Gogh’s portraits of his dopplegänger were misidentified as self-portraits for years.
Now, a new book suggests the possibility that the two men, both depressed, agreed to swap lives, with van Gogh returning to Scotland and a successful career as a dealer—while Reid went on to cut off his ear and ultimately take his own life after painting such masterpieces as Starry Night.
Scottish painter Archibald Standish Hartrick (1864–1950), who knew both men, wrote of their remarkable resemblance in his 1939 memoir, A Painter’s Pilgrimage Through Fifty Years: “The likeness was so marked that they might have been twins. I often hesitated, until I got close, as to which of them I was meeting. They even dressed somewhat similarly.”
It’s also conceivable, technically speaking, that the two could have swapped professions. Before dedicating himself to art, van Gogh, who came from a family of art dealers, was employee at the renowned Goupil & Cie gallery in Paris from 1875 to 1876. For his part, Reid was painter before he began selling the work of others.
Nevertheless, a physical resemblance is one thing, but to think a Scott and a Dutchman could have traded lives without anyone being the wiser is another. But that is precisely is conspiracy theory presented by Philip Hook, Sotheby’s senior international specialist in Impressionist & Modern art, in his forthcoming book Rogue’s Gallery: The Rise (and Occasional Fall) of Art Dealers, the Hidden Players in the History of Art (due out October 31). He writes:
When Reid suffered a romantic disappointment and confided it to Vincent, such was their closeness that Vincent—not feeling very positive about life either—proposed that they should commit suicide together. After a night’s heavy drinking, they thought better of the plan. That much is certain. Conspiracy theorists, however, might enjoy the speculation that at this point the two of them decided to exploit their similarity of appearance and exchange identities. Perhaps it was the man originally known as Reid who went on to Arles, the Asylum at Sain-Rémy, and three years later shot himself in Île-de-France. And perhaps it was the man originally known as Vincent van Gogh who travelled back to Scotland and enjoyed a successful career as an art dealer in Glasgow and London. Or perhaps not. It would make a good story, though.
It would indeed. At the time, Reid had been living for six months, since late 1886, with van Gogh in the Paris flat of the artist’s brother, Theo van Gogh. During this period, the van Gogh painted Reid at least twice, works both titled Portrait of Alexander Reid.
The first work, held at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow, is a closely cropped shot of the sitter’s head and shoulders. The other Portrait of Alexander Reid shows the Scott sitting in an armchair, leaning slightly forward, with additional paintings seen in the background.
It is the only known depiction of Theo van Gogh’s apartment, and belongs to the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma. The institution notes the two men’s undeniable physical similarity on its website, writing that “Reid’s features are curiously similar to van Gogh’s own.”
Shortly after the aborted suicide pact, Reid parted ways with the van Goghs, living separately in Paris before returning to his native country. Some accounts say that Reid fled van Gogh because he was disturbed by the proposed suicide pact. In his memoir Bronze in My Blood, Scottish-Estonian sculptor Benno Schotz told a different tale, insisting that Reid told him that van Gogh threatened him with a knife because he thought Reid was romantically interested in van Gogh’s sister.
If suicide really was on the table, there is speculation that van Gogh resented Reid for backing out of their arrangement, although the two “would often paint or sketch together in the countryside when Reid had a day off from work” after the dealer moved out, according to Frances Fowle’s 1994 dissertation “Alexander Reid in Context: Collecting and Dealing in Scotland in the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries.” She later wrote a 2010 biography of the dealer titled Van Gogh’s Twin, which a representative from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam cited when artnet News asked about the relationship between the two men.
After Reid moved out—or supposedly became van Gogh—the artist did write cuttingly of the dealer to Theo, calling him a “vulgar merchant,” and saying, “I consider the dealer stronger in him than the artist.” (He recanted his harsh words in a June 1889 missive.) Of course, van Gogh’s copious correspondence does much to disprove the far-fetched notion that he lived a secret Scottish life while another took his place.
Meanwhile, back in Scottland, Reid’s father, fellow dealer James Gardner Reid, sold one of the two portraits, along with a van Gogh still life, Basket of Apples, for a nominal sum, reportedly unimpressed with such “newfangled French claptrap.”
Reid went on to become a major figure in the Scottish art scene, and lived until 1928. The following year, Reid’s son McNeil Reid recognized that the two van Gogh paintings described as self-portraits in the artist’s newly published catalogue actually depicted his father. If he could tell the two men apart on canvas, presumably he would have noticed if they traded places.
For his part, Hook was quick to debunk his fantastic theory. “The passage you mention is really just a lighthearted speculation, based on the fact that van Gogh and Reid did look very similar and were for a few months very close friends,” he wrote in an email to artnet News, assuring us that the idea was “not to be taken seriously—a bit of fake news if you like.”
Follow artnet News on Facebook.