There is nothing more dangerous than having half the facts. I'm referring, of course, to the war on ISIS and also to the specs on spectacles as it relates to Theo van Gogh. When I first read the quote about Theo wearing "sunglasses," in the outstanding biography of Vincent van Gogh by Steven Naifeh and the late Gregory White Smith, I knew I had to illustrate it. There was a problem, however. In my experience there are three stages of scholarship:
1. Knowing nothing
2. Knowing just enough to get in trouble
3. Knowing too much
In this case I knew a little bit about the history of sunglasses (#2) and so I stumbled semi-blindly into a cliched vision of 1880s sunglasses that landed somewhere between Ben Franklin and Roger McGuinn of the Byrds.
Fortunately I posted the image here and got a link from Gay Mathis to the entire letter and discovered that there is no mention of the word "sunglasses" on the quote on the van Gogh letters site. Then I ran into Tom Valenza of Historic Eyewear who told me two startling things: a "pince nez" has no temple bars that run to the ears and, two, that the term "sunglasses" was not used until after the 1900s.
Lost In Translation
So, I took the quote from the book on face value: "I cannot help seeing you in my mind's eye wearing a pince-nez with sunglasses." That is the quote from the book. However, here is the quote as it appears on the site Gay Mathis found: ""Since this summer I can’t help always visualizing you with your lorgnette with dark lenses. This doesn’t change a person very much, you’ll say. Maybe so — but my impression is that you have perhaps, in a sense other than the literal one, acquired dark glasses in what you think and do. Suspicion, for instance."
Nowhere is the term "sunglasses." Apparently, the authors of the van Gogh biography trusted a translation that used the term "sunglasses" and apparently the translator didn't know the history of the term. It just shows the layers of history that can trip up the casual history buff (and that would include me). So, after five false starts, I did this version of Theo and his Pince-Nez spectacles this morning: