Arts Everyday Living: Inside the World of Van Gogh–A Late Self-Portrait, A Farewell to Us?

Vincent van Gogh, Self Portrait, 1889, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Title: Self Portrait

Artist: Dutch master Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)

Where: In the mental institution  in Saint-Remy-de-Provence in southern France. Vincent van Gogh had voluntarily committed himself in early May, 1889, after leaving the nearby city of Arles where he had lived from February 1888 to his departure in the spring.

When: During the summer of 1889, some five weeks after Van Gogh had suffered a major breakdown while painting in the countryside outside the asylum.

What: One of Van Gogh’s final self-portraits. Like his Dutch countryman Rembrandt, Vincent left an enduring legacy of of self-portraits (about 36 although the exact number is still not known); a large number of them today are in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

How: Miraculously done in what is likely a single session, Van Gogh applies his brushstrokes with strength and power: from the striking image of his head, particularly the strands of unruly hair, to the web of emphatic lines and planes of his smock, to the dramatic halo-like zone encircling his figure overall. Even the dabs of paint on the palette have a thick, tactile quality as if we can almost touch them.

Combined with an extraordinary range of blues that seem to dominate the canvas, from the darker tones of the background, verging on black, to the lighter areas of his clothing, merging in places with a shade similar to turquoise. Yet green and yellow are crucial to the composition, defining the play of light and shadow across his skin, and interwoven into the distinctive orange-red of his hair as well as beard.

Why: According to Van Gogh’s letter to his brother Theo, Vincent chose the subject of self-portraiture because of a lack of models. He also described himself as a ghost, still recovering from the physical and emotional impact of what might have been an epileptic seizure. Yet his penetrating eyes grip us, the viewers, with an directness and honesty forever imprinted on our minds, hearts, and souls.




In the public domain, courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

The National Gallery of Art does not endorse or approve use of the above image or any of the material on this website. Nor has the National Gallery of Art participated in any projects utilizing the said image.

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