He is one of the best-known artists in the world, a pioneering modernist and the genius who marked the 20th century with his vibrant aesthetics. The Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh, although celebrated for his memorable landscapes of his native country that gradually became a trademark of French sensibility, was a rather tragic character who suffered from anxiety and depression throughout his life.
A myriad of Van Gogh's emotional states was best captured on around thirty-nine self-portraits that he painted during a fruitful ten-year period (1886-1889) of his short-lived career which made him one of the most prolific self portraitists of all time. The decision to paint himself was affiliated with the fact the artist was often broke and therefore unable to pay for models; however, looking from contemporary stance it seems that Van Gogh used self-portraiture as a vehicle for articulating himself as a human and as an artist. He once described his urge for this genre in a letter he wrote to his sister Wilhelmina van Gogh in 1887:
Of my own work, I think that the picture of peasants eating potatoes I did in Nuenen is après tout the best I've done. But since then I've had no chance of getting models, though, on the other hand, I did have the chance to study the color question. And if I should find models again for my figures later, then I would hope to be able to show that I am after something other than little green landscapes or flowers.
The curiosity is that among the artworks seized by the Nazis and shown at their propaganda exhibition called Degenerate art (Das Entertate Kunst), there was a couple of Van Gogh’s iconic post-Impressionist paintings shoulder to shoulder with Expressionist, Cubist, Dadaist and the works by others that were considered unfitting and obscene. One of his self-portraits, to be mentioned further in the text, was sold at a Degenerate Art auction for the US $40,000.
Editors’ Tip: Vincent van Gogh: A Self-Portrait in Art and Letters
Throughout his life, Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) wrote hundreds of letters, many to his brother Theo. Theo acted as patron, agent, and sounding board to the artist whose life was fraught with poverty, a struggle for recognition, and alternating fits of madness and lucidity. Van Gogh also corresponded with other family members and fellow artists, including his dear friends Paul Gauguin and Emile Bernard. His letters, originally collected by Theo’s wife, Johanna, exhibit Van Gogh’s genius, his depth of observation, and his feelings in their most naked form. In Vincent Van Gogh these letters have been excerpted, newly translated, and set side-by-side with more than 250 of his drawings and paintings. Van Gogh’s words and art illuminate each other and reveal a portrait of the artist as never seen before. The commentary of H. Anna Suh frames van Gogh’s work and puts his art, letters, life, and struggles into rich context. The result is this timeless jewel of a collection, unlike any other van Gogh book that has gone before.
Featured image: Vincent van Gogh - Self-Portrait With a Bandaged Ear, 1889. Oil on canvas. Height: 60.5 cm (23.8 in); Width: 50 cm (19.6 in). Collection Courtauld Institute of Art. Image creative commons.
The first painting on our list was produced by the painter in 1889. The scholars are divided in determining this or Self-portrait without beard as his final self-portrait. Van Gogh took the painting with him to Auvers-sur-Oise, near Paris, and showed it to Dr. Paul Gachet, who found it "absolutely fanatical." Eventually, the painter sent this self-portrait to his younger brother, the art dealer Theo with an accompanying message:
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.
This Self-portrait of 1889 can be found at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.
Featured image: Vincent van Gogh - Self-portrait, 1889. Oil on canvas. Height: 650 mm (25.59 in); Width: 540 mm (21.25 in). Collection Musée d'Orsay. Image creative commons.
This Van Gogh painting titled Self-Portrait with Straw Hat was made in the summer of 1887 in Paris. It depicts the artist with almost cheerful face expression suggesting the calm phase in the artist’s life.
During his two year stay in the City of Light between 1886 and 1888, under the influence of the Impressionist color scheme Van Gogh lightened his palette; however, very soon reserved he started using light colors only to express particular moods.
Self-Portrait with Straw Hat is held at the Detroit Institute of Art.
Featured image: Vincent van Gogh - Self-Portrait with Straw Hat, 1887. Oil on cardboard mounted on panel, Height: 34.9 cm (13.7 in); Width: 26.7 cm (10.5 in). Collection Detroit Institute of Arts. Image creative commons.
This artwork features Van Gogh wearing a blue cap lined with black fur and a green overcoat, with a bandage covering his ear. The painting is related to the difficult phase in the artist’s life; he moved from Paris to Arles hoping to establish an artists' community to which he invited Paul Gauguin, a young Parisian painter. However, the two quarreled often and were unable to function.
On 23 December 1888 during one of their arguments, Van Gogh became violent and threatened Gauguin with a razor, but then injured himself and cut off one part of his left ear. In a state of frenzy, he presented the dismembered ear particle to a prostitute named Rachel at the Maison de Tolérance bordello.
The following morning after Gauguin returned, he encountered the police at the house, and traces of blood splattered in every room. Van Gogh cut an artery in his neck and was in an awful state after losing so much blood, so he was transferred to the hospital. The painter stated he had no recollection of what happened. Throughout his life, Van Gogh was tormented with similar states caused by acute paranoia.
Self-Portrait With a Bandaged Ear is hanging at Kunsthaus Zürich.
Featured image: Vincent van Gogh - Self-Portrait With a Bandaged Ear, 1889. Oil on canvas. Collection Kunsthaus Zürich. Image creative commons.
The other Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat was also made by Van Gogh during his Parisian phase. Since he lacked money to pay the models, the painter became his own best sitter. This particular painting shows Van Gogh’s appreciation and appropriation of the Neo-Impressionist technique and is one of several that are executed on the reverse of an earlier peasant study.
This Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat can be found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Featured image: Vincent van Gogh - Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat, 1887/88. Medium oil on canvas. Height: 40.6 cm (15.9 in); Width: 31.8 cm (12.5 in). Collection Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image creative commons.
With this painting, Van Gogh depicted himself as a modern painter with a palette and paintbrushes in his hands - a palette that features the complementary color pairs (yellow/purple, red/green, and blue/orange) he used to paint this canvas with. This astonishing painting was the last one the artist produced in Paris, the city that exhausted him both mentally and physically.
This self-portrait is held at The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
Featured image: Vincent van Gogh - Self-portrait, 1888. Oil on canvas. Height: 65.5 cm (25.7 in); Width: 50.5 cm (19.8 in). Collection Van Gogh Museum. Image creative commons.
This work is one of the very last self–portraits Van Gogh painted. After he was interned at the asylum, the artist was not that interested in figurative painting and focused more on the surrounding landscapes. However, in July 1889 Van Gogh suffered a severe breakdown while painting in the fields near the asylum. Exhausted by the experience, he withdrew entirely to his studio, refusing to go out. This painting is the first one produced after Van Gogh recovered from that episode.
The painting is located at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
Featured image: Vincent van Gogh - Self Portrait of Vincent van Gogh, 1889. Oil on canvas. Height: 57.7 cm (22.7 in); Width: 44.5 cm (17.5 in). Collection National Gallery of Art. Image creative commons.
This artwork is one of the earliest self-portraits made during the Parisian period. Modest in size and painted on prepared artist’s board, it is characterized by a dense brushwork and it operates as Van Gogh’s response to revolutionary pointillist technique launched by Georges Seurat. Van Gogh focused on his deep green eyes and the intensity of their gaze, a decision related to his observation that people’s eyes are more intriguing to paint than cathedrals.
Featured image: Vincent van Gogh - Self-Portrait, 1887. Oil on artist's board mounted on cradled panel. Height: 410 mm (16.14 in); Width: 325 mm (12.79 in). Collection Art Institute of Chicago. Image creative commons.
This particular Self-Portrait Dedicated to Paul Gauguin was made in 1888 in Arles, where, as it was mentioned, Van Gogh hoped to establish an art colony. The artist firmly believed that painting could be reinvented through the genre of portraiture, and so he encouraged his peers to paint themselves, and then to exchange the canvases. After Van Gogh received self-portraits by Emile Bernard and Paul Gauguin, he inscribed this painting with the sentence: "To my friend Paul Gauguin" and sent it to him. Since their liaison ended, Gauguin sold the piece for three hundred francs.
In 1919 this Van Gogh’s self-portrait was donated to the Neue Staatsgalerie in Munich where it was on display until 1937 or 1938 when it became part of the auction organized within the Degenerate art exhibition in Lucerne. The self-portrait was then purchased by Maurice Wertheim, who wanted to bequeath the painting to the Harvard Art Museums. However, as the war started, the Neue Staatsgalerie closed and along with other artifacts, this painting was shipped in storage outside Munich and that is how it survived. The other valuable items housed in the museum basement haven’t the bombing and were destroyed.
The painting can now be found at
Featured image: Vincent van Gogh - Self-Portrait Dedicated to Paul Gauguin, 1888. Oil on canvas. Height: 61.5 cm (24.2 in); Width: 50.3 cm (19.8 in). Collection Fogg Museum. Image creative commons.
Shortly after returning home from the hospital after cutting off his own ear, Van Gogh produced this self-portrait that features him in the state of melancholy as if he is questioning his position as an artist. This assumption is confirmed with a blank canvas on the left, while a Japanese print on the right stands as a symbol of inspiration for the artist; it is a copy of a print by Sato Torakiyo, that was pinned on the wall in his studio. To fit his own face into the composition, Van Gogh rearranged the figures and Mount Fuji on the print to the right.
This self-portrait is held at the Courtauld Gallery.
Featured image: Vincent van Gogh - Self-Portrait With a Bandaged Ear, 1889. Oil on canvas. Height: 60 cm (23.6 in); Width: 49 cm (19.2 in). Collection Courtauld Gallery. Image creative commons.
The last painting on our list is a Self-portrait without beard made by Vincent van Gogh in 1889. As mentioned at the beginning, this is another work believed to be Van Gogh's last self-portrait. The painter gave it to his mother as a birthday gift. The curiosity is that this is one of the most expensive paintings of all time, sold for $71.5 million in 1998 in New York City, and is therefore now part of a private collection.
Featured image: Vincent van Gogh - Self-portrait without beard, 1889. Oil on canvas. Height: 40 cm (15.7 in); Width: 31 cm (12.2 in). Private collection. Image creative commons.
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