Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890)

'Self Portrait: Saint-Rémy, 1889 (oil and on canvas)
VINCENT VAN GOGH (1853-1890)
'Self Portrait: Saint-Rémy', 1889 (oil on canvas)

Vincent Van Gogh charted his development as an artist in an amazing series of candid self portraits. These not only record the changes in his painting technique, but also reveal his psychological decline with a humility and honesty not seen since the self portraits of Rembrandt. In the last five years of his life he painted over thirty self portraits.

The self portrait above from the Musée d'Orsay brings together all the elements of Van Gogh's later work: a choice of color that reflects his emotional state and a style of drawing that pulsates with energy. It was painted shortly after he left the St. Remy asylum in July 1889 and shows that he was still fighting his demons. It is arguably the most intense self portrait in the history of art.

This painting is a portrait of Van Gogh's internal crisis. His piercing eyes hold you transfixed but their focus is not on what is happening outside, but inside his head. The energy of the picture builds from the eyes which are the most tightly drawn feature. The rhythms of his brushstrokes spread across the planes of his face, gaining energy as they ripple through his jacket and hair, and finally burst into the churning turbulence of the ice-blue background. The cool blues and greens that he uses are normally calm colors, but when they are contrasted with his vivid red hair and beard they strike a jarring note which perfectly sets the psychological tone of the portrait. This is a very courageous image of a man trying to hold himself together as he wrestles with his inner fears.

The Influence of Dutch Art

'Self Portrait with Pipe', 1886 (oil and on canvas)
VINCENT VAN GOGH (1853-1890)
'Self Portrait with Pipe', 1886 (oil on canvas)

This self portrait, painted before Van Gogh's move to Paris, is typical of his earlier paintings. The dark earthy tones, which are characteristic of traditional Dutch painting, are used to create an image of humble dignity. This work is influenced by the art of Anton Mauve who was Van Gogh's cousin-in-law and tutor in the early 1880's. The style of the image, particularly the beard and hair, bear a strong resemblance to a Mauve himself.

The Influence of Pointillism

'Self Portrait', 1887 (oil and on canvas)
VINCENT VAN GOGH (1853-1890)
'Self Portrait', 1887 (oil on canvas)

In Paris, Van Gogh was influenced by the artist Georges Seurat who devised a painting technique called Pointillism. Seurat painted in tiny dots of unmixed colors which fuse into subtle hues as the spectator steps back to take in the image. However, without Seurat's patient and analytical approach to the technique, Van Gogh's attempt at pointillism was generally clumsy, but it does start to reveal the main element of his his true genius - a natural instinct for the expressive and emotional power of color.

The Influence of Impressionism

'Self Portrait', 1887 (oil and on canvas)
VINCENT VAN GOGH (1853-1890)
'Self Portrait', 1887 (oil on canvas)

This portrait displays the influence of Impressionism on Van Gogh's use of color and brushwork.

The Impressionists tried to create the color of natural light by only using pure hues as seen in the colors of the rainbow. They banished premixed browns, blacks and greys from their paintings. Instead, they replaced them with unmixed dashes of pure color. For example, Van Gogh's jacket is painted with red and green brushstrokes which fuse together on the canvas. Some areas mix naturally to form a brown, but some still retain the dashes of the pure unmixed colors. These mix optically in the eye of the spectator and increase the vitality of the color.

The vigour of Van Gogh's brushwork heightens the expressive qualities of this self-portrait. The physical texture of his brushstrokes helps to convey the roughness of his tweed jacket and the softness of his felt hat.

Vincent's Expressive Brushwork

'Self Portrait in a Felt Hat', 1887 (oil and on canvas)
VINCENT VAN GOGH (1853-1890)
'Self Portrait in a Felt Hat', 1887 (oil on canvas)

In this work we have a perfect balance between the vitality of Van Gogh's color and the energy of his brushwork.

His confidence and control of color is approaching its peak. The tones of the face form a traditional, realistic portrait. But the colors used to create these tones explode like a firework of red, orange, yellow, white, lilac, sky blue and green brushstrokes. He harnesses the energy of his brushstrokes by controlling their rhythm, size and direction. They radiate outwards from his eyes to eventually build the blue and orange aura that encircles his head.

The Emotional Impact of Color

'Self Portrait with a Bandaged Ear', 1887 (oil and on canvas)
VINCENT VAN GOGH (1853-1890)
'Self Portrait with a Bandaged Ear', 1887
(oil on canvas)

This self portrait with a bandaged ear is one of two famous versions.

It was Van Gogh's dream to form an artists' colony in Arles with his friend, the painter Paul Gauguin. After Gauguin's arrival it gradually became obvious that their personalities clashed and they could not work together. They frequently quarreled and after one exchange Van Gogh lost his self control and attacked Gauguin. This resulted in the famous incident when Van Gogh, overwhelmed by remorse and depression, cut off the lobe of his ear.

This painting, which was created within two weeks of that breakdown, is most certainly the calm after the storm. He takes a quiet and detached look at himself and expresses a feeling of renewed hope through his bright colors and simplified drawing. A clue to the origin of this bold style is found in the Japanese woodblock print on the wall behind him.

Van Gogh suffered from a nervous condition which caused him to experience extreme mood swings. Although his illness was responsible for his dark periods of depression and eventual death, he also experienced periods of elation when he painted with a unique understanding of the emotional impact of color and how to use it at its highest pitch. People seem to instinctively recognise this quality when they look at his paintings and they appreciate the great personal price he paid for the masterpieces that he created. This is what makes Van Gogh one of the most popular artists in the history of art.

Vincent Van Gogh Notes

'Photographic Portrait, aged 13', 1866
VINCENT VAN GOGH (1853-1890)
'Photographic Portrait, aged 13', 1866
  • In 1869 at the age of 15, Vincent Van Gogh trained and worked for five years as an art dealer for 'Goupil et Cie' at their branches in the Hague and London. Eventually he became resentful about the commercialism surrounding the sale of artworks, insulted customers and was fired.
  • Various short term jobs followed, including supply teaching and as an assistant to a Methodist minister.
  • In 1879, Vincent Van Gogh worked unsuccessfully as an evangelical Protestant missionary in the poor coal mining district of the Borinage in Belgium before taking up painting at the age of 27.
  • His early works depict the hard lives of Dutch peasants and demonstrate his respect for the humble dignity of their labour. These works were influenced by the dark earthy tones of traditional Dutch art which Van Gogh used to symbolise the peasants closeness to and dependence on the land for their survival.
  • In 1886 he went to live with his brother Theo in Paris where he was influenced by Impressionism and Post Impressionism. The colors in his paintings brightened spectacularly and his output increased dramatically with over 200 paintings done in the two years that he spent there.
  • In 1888, he set off with the intention of forming an artists' colony in Arles with his friend, the painter Paul Gauguin. After Gauguin's arrival it gradually became obvious that their personalities clashed and they could not work together. They frequently quarreled and after one exchange Van Gogh lost his self control and attacked Gauguin. This resulted in the famous incident when Van Gogh, overwhelmed by remorse and depression, cut off the lobe of his left ear.
  • The full force of Van Gogh’s work is seen in his paintings at Arles. These display a powerful emotional impact by their use of intensely exaggerated color which was very thickly applied to create a textured surface of great sensitivity. The energetic brushstrokes of these works are the hallmark of Van Gogh’s art.
  • In 1889, his depression deepened and entered the hospital at St. Remy, near Arles. The paintings that he produced here, such as Starry Night’ show a corresponding increase in their emotive power as his brushwork becomes more convulsive.
  • In 1890, he moved to Auvers-sur-Oise and lodged at the Ravoux Inn as this was closer to his brother Theo. His condition gradually deteriorated and on Sunday 29 July 1890, he walked out into a field and shot himself in the chest. He managed to stagger back to the inn but died two days later with his brother at his bedside. According to Theo, his last words were, 'la tristesse durera toujours' – 'the sadness will last forever'.