Back to Top

c. 1956

Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh

Van Gogh had a doppelgänger.

A madman, a failure, a suicide, dead at 37 — and yet, today, one of the most famous artists of all time. Van Gogh did not sell a single painting before his death in 1890. Now, his work is among the most expensive art ever to be sold at auction. And, as the photos below demonstrate, he had a doppelgänger in Kirk Douglas.

Kirk Douglas awaits filming, Arles, France
Frank Scherschel/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Douglas was born Issur Danielovitc in 1916; his parents were immigrants from modern day Belarus. His father, a Russian horse trader, became a ragman. Before WWII, Douglas was known as Izzy Demsky (a surname his brother, an earlier immigrant to the US, had adopted). But on entry to the U.S. Navy in 1941, Izzy Demsky became Kirk.

Douglas on set
Richard C. Miller/Donaldson Collection/Getty Images

Douglas was already a box office star when he was cast as Van Gogh. His 1949 film, Champion, had been his breakthrough role. But when it came to Lust for Life, Douglas was committed to conveying Van Gogh as the quintessential tortured artist. Douglas taught himself to paint, and remained in character even when at home. As his wife, Anne Buydens, said:

“When he was doing Lust for Life, he came home in that red beard of Van Gogh’s, wearing those big boots, stomping around the house—it was frightening.”

Douglas in character as Van Gogh
Getty Images

Douglas’ performance was almost universally praised and won him a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination — and all critics commented on his uncanny resemblance to Van Gogh. And yet against a budget of more than $3 million, the production was not a huge hit, losing nearly three-quarters-of-a-million dollars.

Douglas holds a brush between his teeth as Van Gogh
Getty Images

Incidentally, when Van Gogh severed his own ear, he was treated by one Doctor Ray. Van Gogh gave Doctor Ray a painting — Portrait of Doctor Félix Rey — but the doctor didn’t like it. He used the painting to repair his chicken coop, and later gave it away. Today, Portrait of Doctor Félix Rey is worth more than $50 million.

Douglas as Van Gogh surrounded by the artists work
John Springer Collection/Corbis/Getty Images
Douglas as Van Gogh scatters crows from his painting
Getty Images
Keeping his wooden shoes dry under an umbrella, Douglas surveys rainy skies from a director’s chair near the village of Vught, in the Netherlands
Getty Images
Douglas poses beside a self-portrait of Vincent Van Gogh (Douglas’ beard is not real)
A triple view of Douglas as Van Gogh
Getty Images
Kirk Douglas poses for a portrait in a scene from ‘Lust For Life’
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images

Watch this

How to care for loved ones from a distance

see more from
More