Vincent Van Gogh painted a number of portraits throughout his artistic career, but this 1889 version, painted only months before his death, is one of the greatest. The undulating background, contrasted with the fixed, rigid expression on Van Gogh’s face, provides a fascinating contradiction. In this article, Singulart examines the life of Van Gogh, his passion for painting self-portraits, and explore what makes Self Portrait (1889) one of his masterpieces.
The life of Vincent Van Gogh
Van Gogh was the second of six children, born into a religious family in the Netherlands. Although he showed no early preference for art, in 1869 he began an apprenticeship at the headquarters of art dealers Goupil & Cie, located in Paris. He became a successful dealer, eventually moving to the company’s Hague branch. It was during Van Gogh’s ten year stint at Goupil & Cie that he began regular correspondence with his brother Theo, who followed in Van Gogh’s footsteps and also entered into the world of art dealing.
After spending months between Goupil & Cie’s Paris and London offices, Van Gogh became depressed and sought answers in God. He was let go from his position at the company and decided to become a clergyman, moving to southern Belgium. Even though he threw himself enthusiastically into clergy life, becoming a preacher and giving away the majority of his possessions, he was asked to leave the clergy as he was too committed to the faith.
Van Gogh decided that he could become an artist and still follow the teachings of God, writing to Theo, “To try and understand the real significance of what the great artists, the serious masters, tell us in their masterpieces, that leads to God; one man wrote it or told it in a book, another, in a picture.”
Although Theo would financially support Van Gogh throughout his career, Van Gogh was forced to move back into his parents’ house after suffering from severe poverty. While living with them, he taught himself to draw, however his attention was captivated by something else- his affections for his cousin, Kee Vos-Stricker. Her rejection and his continuous advances tore his family apart, and he was encouraged by Theo to move out and commence studies at the Hague School.
Van Gogh would then move to Nuenen, where he completed pieces such as The Potato Eaters. His family troubles continued; he would accuse Theo of not trying hard enough to sell his pieces, and his father died suddenly of a stroke in 1885. After a brief stint studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, Van Gogh moved to Paris and started living with Theo in Montmartre. It was here he began experimenting with a lighter color palette, after seeing work by impressionist artists such as Monet and Degas.
Most of Van Gogh’s well known pieces were created during the last two years of his life, which was also the most turbulent time. Tired of the hustle and bustle of Paris, he moved to Arles, taking up residence in what he dubbed the Yellow House. It was here that van Gogh’s mental health deteriorated, leading to a fight with his friend and roommate Paul Gauguin during which Van Gogh threatened Gauguin with a razor and then cut off part of his left ear.
After this incident, Van Gogh was committed to a psychiatric hospital, where he produced works such as Starry Night. After leaving the Saint-Rémy institution, he moved to Auvers-sur-Oise with homeopathic doctor, Dr. Gachet. Sadly, Van Gogh’s depression worsened, and on July 27, 1890 he attempted suicide with a shotgun in a nearby field. Theo rushed to his brother’s bedside, only to hear Van Gogh’s last words, “The sadness will last forever.”
Van Gogh’s self portraits
Van Gogh’s identity was heavily tied into his persona as an artist. Throughout the course of his life, he produced over thirty self-portraits. As he wrote to his sister Wilhemina, “I am looking for a deeper likeness than that obtained by a photographer.”
Each stage of Van Gogh’s artistic career has a defining self-portrait, and through them he captured many facets of his life. Notable examples include Self-Portrait with Pipe, which is believed to be his first venture into self-portraits. Self-Portrait with Pipe is painted in a realistic style, using a dark color palette of deep reds and blacks. This contrasts with another impressionist self-portrait, Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat, in which van Gogh portrays himself with his signature short, curved brushstrokes.
Van Gogh constantly reinvented himself on his own canvas; as he explained in a letter to Theo, “It is difficult to know oneself, but it isn’t easy to paint oneself either.”
Self Portrait (1889)
One of the immediate striking elements of this self portrait is the whirling, chaotic background. Some critics believe this points to Van Gogh’s psychotic mental state at the time, though the repeated curves show an element of control and a steady hand. The wavy lines of the background are echoed in the short, emphatic brushstrokes that cover Van Gogh’s face, giving it a kind of shimmering movement, continued in the wavy lines of his suit.
In this portrait, Van Gogh has painted himself in a blue suit, not the pea coat that he was accustomed to working in. However, much of the attention is focused on his face, his eyes having a determined yet weary stare, and his emaciated face showing a closed-off expression. As he wrote to Theo, “You will need to study [the picture] for a time. I hope you will notice that my facial expressions have become much calmer, although my eyes have the same insecure look as before, or so it appears to me.” The rigid appearance of his face contrasts sharply with the rolling lines apparent in the background.
The absinthe green and turquoise of the background compliment the fiery orange of van Gogh’s beard and hair, and the quiet blue color palette is reminiscent of Starry Night, as well as the undulating lines comprising the background.
The frenetic energy of the artwork suggests the disorientation that Van Gogh was feeling after his time in a psychiatric hospital. He described these episodes in a letter to Wilhemina, stating, “I was completely unaware of anything that I was saying or doing.” Although the painting has a dark history, it shows Van Gogh’s mastery of the self portrait and depicts a pivotal moment in his life.