Arts Everyday Living: Van Gogh in Impressionist Paris–Self Portraits of Color and Light





Tomorrow I will be presenting the final class of a three part series on my book Through an Artist’s Eyes: Leaning to Live Creatively, focusing on self portraits, enabling us s to explore as well as analyze our own thoughts and feelings.

For instance, few artists can rival Vincent van Gogh in the number of the 35 plus self portraits he produced (exceptions include his 17th century Dutch countryman Rembrandt  and Mexican artistic icon Frida Kahlo whose career spanned the 1920s to the 1950s).  However, about 25 of them were created during Vincent’s two years in Paris where he lived with his art dealer brother Theo, from the beginning of 1886 to February, 1888. *

Why? Probably because Vincent was unable to afford models, he found himself often concentrating on his own features as a way to gain practice for portraits. His appearance often changes during this peiord, beginning with Self Portrait with Dark Felt Hat below.

In this self portrait, Vincent looks out at us from the surrounding darkness. He seems well dressed, neat in a coat and tie; his smooth rounded hat is particularly distinctive. Vincent might be any young man walking the streets of Paris in the late years of the 19th century. And yet, upon looking closer at his pale face and direct expression, can we already see the genius that would make Vincent so famous long after his death?


Vincent van Gogh, Self Portrait with Felt Hat, December 1886-January, 1887, oil on canvas, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands


Next, in Self Portrait with Grey Felt Hat, painted likely the following summer, we meet a much different Vincent—the gentleman around town, in this case Paris. He looks almost debonair, attired in a stylish pink jacket trimmed with vivid blue, a softer blue tie, and a jaunty grey felt hat.


Vincent van Gogh, Self Portrait, Summer 1887, oil on cardboard, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands


In Self Portrait with Straw Hat, created the same year, Vincent surprises us again. Bright yellow sunshine seems to flood the work of art. The sophisticated Parisian has been replaced by a peasant or farmer, wearing a broad straw hat, plain shirt and rough smock, Vincent’s uniform when he would go painting in the countryside only a few miles outside of Paris.

In this and the preceding self-portrait, Vincent’s range of colors has been transformed from the darker palette of his Dutch period into the rainbow hues enhanced by the luminous light of the Impressionists who had just shown their last exhibition in 1886, the year that Vincent arrived in the City of Light. His rapid, sketchy brushstrokes throughout (in the background, face and torso) are also a trademark of these revolutionary artists such as Monet and Renoir.


Vincent van Gogh, Self Portrait with Straw Hat, Paris, September – December, 1887, oil on cardboard, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands


We meet Vincent one last time in Self Portrait as a Painter, probably done just before he left Paris for Arles in southern France. It might have been early winter, and likely cold in Vincent’s studio before the comfort and convenience of modern electricity or gas. And yet, Vincent is hatless, his hair short and cropped, as if he, to save money, might have cut it himself.

His blue smock, though, does appear sturdy and warm, protecting him from the crisp air. In front of Vincent, stands his easel at which he seems to be gazing intently, searching perhaps for an answer to life in his own painted image. In his right hand, he grips his brushes and multi-colored palette, both his tools and weapons in the passionate pursuit of art.


Vincent van Gogh, Self Portrait as a Painter, Paris, December 1887 – February 1888, oil on canvas, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands

*The numbers are from the website of the Vincent van Gogh Museum.





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