Although his career was brief, lasting a mere 10 years, Vincent van Gogh proved to be an exceptionally prolific and innovative artist. While he experimented with a variety of subjects—landscape, still life, portraiture—it is his self–portraits that have come to define him as an artist. Like his predecessor, Rembrandt van Rijn, Van Gogh was a devoted and probing practitioner of the art of self–portraiture. He painted no fewer than 36 self–portraits, undertaking his first forays just after his arrival in Paris in March 1886 and executing his last, culminant works during his stay at the asylum of Saint–Paul–de–Mausole in Saint–Rémy. The Washington canvas is one of the very last self–portraits Van Gogh painted.
During the first months of his voluntary internment at the asylum, the artist showed little interest in figure painting and concentrated instead upon the surrounding landscape. But in early July 1889 while painting in the fields near the asylum, Van Gogh suffered a severe breakdown that could have been a symptom of epilepsy. Incapacitated for five weeks and greatly unnerved by the experience, the artist retreated to his studio, refusing to go out even to the garden. This painting is the first work he produced after recovering from that episode. In a letter to his brother Theo written in early September 1889, he observed:
They say—and I am very willing to believe it—that it is difficult to know yourself—but it isn't easy to paint yourself either. So I am working on two portraits of myself at this moment—for want of another model—because it is more than time I did a little figure work. One I began the day I got up; I was thin and pale as a ghost. It is dark violet–blue and the head whitish with yellow hair, so it has a color effect. But since then I have begun another one, three quarter length on a light background. 
This self–portrait is a particularly bold painting, apparently executed in a single sitting without later retouching. Here Van Gogh portrayed himself at work, dressed in his artist's smock with his palette and brushes in hand, a guise he had already adopted in two earlier self–portraits. While the pose itself and the intense scrutiny of the artist's gaze are hardly unique—one need but think of the occasionally uncompromising self–portraits of Rembrandt—the haunting and haunted quality of the image is distinct. The dark blue–violet of the smock and ground, the vivid orange of his hair and beard, create a startling contrast to the yellow and green of his face and heighten the gauntness of his features in a sallow complexion. The dynamic, even frenzied brushwork lends an uncommon immediacy and expressiveness to his portrayal. In its sheer intensity, it stands in sharp contrast to the other self–portrait he painted at the same time (Musée d'Orsay, Paris) in which the artist appears calmer and more self–possessed. Nevertheless, Van Gogh preferred the Washington painting as the one that captured his 'true character." 
(Text by Kimberly Jones, published in the National Gallery of Art exhibition catalogue, Art for the Nation, 2000)
1. Letter no. 604, The Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, 3 vols. (London, 1958), 3:201-202.
2. Letter no. W14, Van Gog 1958, 3:458.
Marks and Labels
J.J. Isaacson [1859-1942], The Hague. Hugo Tutein Nolthenius [1863-1944], Delft, by 1904. (Katz Gallery, Switzerland), probably by 1945; on consignment with (M. Knoedler & Co., New York, no. 2845); sold 9 June 1947 to Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney, New York; gift 1998 to NGA.
- Vincent van Gogh, Kunstzalen Oldenzeel, Rotterdam, 1904, no. 70.
- Vincent van Gogh, Kunstzalen Oldenzeel, Rotterdam, 1906, no. 46.
- Vincent van Gogh, Rotterdamsch Kunstkring, 11 June - 10 July 1910, no. 33.
- Sonderbund Ausstellung, Cologne, 1912, no. 86, repro.
- Kersttentoonstelling, Museum Boymans, Rotterdam, 1927-1928, no. 34, repro.
- Exhibition of Dutch Art 1450-1900, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1929, no. 466.
- Vincent Van Gogh en zijn tijdgenooten, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 1930, no. 80.
- Exhibition of Tutein Nolthenius collection, Museum Paul Tetar van Elven, Delft, 1941.
- Vincent van Gogh, 25 Werke, Hollandhilfe, Galerie Schulthess, Basel, 1945, no. 12.
- Ecole de Paris, Kunsthalle Bern, 1946.
- 21 Masterpieces by 7 Great Masters, Benefit for the Public Education Association, Paul Rosenberg Gallery, New York, November - December 1948, no. 12, repro.
- Vincent van Gogh 14 Masterpieces, M. Knoedler & Co., New York, March - April 1948, no. 14.
- Van Gogh: Paintings and Drawings, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Art Institute of Chicago, 1949-1950, no. 119, as Portrait of the Artist, repro.
- Selections from Five New York Private Collections, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1951, unnumbered catalogue.
- Paintings from Private Collections, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1955, unnumbered catalogue.
- The John Hay Whitney Collection, Tate Gallery, London, 1960-1961, no. 32, repro.
- The John Hay Whitney Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1983, no. 25, repro.
- Van Gogh in Saint-Rémy and Auvers, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1986-1987, no. 22, repro.
- Vincent van Gogh, Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh, Amsterdam, 1990, no. 99, repro., as Self-Portrait with Palette.
- Gifts to the Nation from Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1998-1999, no cat.
- Art for the Nation: Collecting for a New Century, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2000-2001, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
- Van Gogh Face to Face: The Portraits, The Detroit Institute of Arts; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2000-2001, no. 169, repro. (shown only in Boston).
- Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South, The Art Institute of Chicago; Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 2001-2002, no. 119, repro. (shown only in Chicago; incorrect credit line and accession no. in exh. cat.).
- Van Gogh and Gauguin: An Artistic Dialogue in the South of France, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, 2004, no cat.
- Van Gogh and Expressionism, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam; Neue Galerie New York, 2006-2007, unnumbered catalogue, pl. 70 (shown only in New York).
- Loan to display with permanent collection, Norton Gallery and School of Art, West Palm Beach, 2010-2011.
- Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; The National Art Center, Tokyo; Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art, 2011, no. 20, repro.
- Van Gogh/Artaud. Le suicidé de la société, Musée d'Orsay, Paris, 2014, no. 13, repro.
- Huebner, F.M. Moderne Kunst in den Privatsammlungen Europas. Holland.. Leipzig, 1922: 51-52.
- Faille, J.-B. de la. L'Oeuvre de Vincent Van Gogh, catalogue raisonné. 4 vols. Paris and Brussels, 1928: 1:no. 626; 2:repro.
- Scherjon, W. De Zelfportretten van Vinvent van Gogh Uit St. Remy. Utrecht, 1929:10, repro.
- Douwes, W.F. Vincent van Gogh. Amsterdam, c. 1930:54, repro. frontispiece
- Scherjon, W. Catalogue des Tableaux par Vincent can Gogh décrits dans des lettres. Utrecht, 1932:40, repro.
- Scherjon, W. and Jos. de Gruyter. Vincent van Gogh's Great Period: Arles, St. Rémy and Auvers sur Oise (Complete Catalogue). Amsterdam, 1937:230, no. 28, repro.
- Faille, J.-B. de la. Vincent Van Gogh. New York and Paris, 1939: 431, no. 626, repro.
- Goldscheider, Ludwig and Wilhelm Uhde. Vincent van Gogh. Oxford, London and New York, 1945:no. 72, repro.
- Schmalenbach, Fritz. "Brief uit Zwitzerland," Phoenix 1, no. 4 (1946):24, repro.
- McBride, Henry. "Rockefeller, Whitney, Senior, Odets, Colin." Art News 50 (June-July-August 1951):36, repro.
- Rewald, John. "French Paintings in the collection of Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney." The Connoisseur 134, no. 552 (April 1956):136, repro.
- Faille, J.-B. de la. The Works of Vincent van Gogh: Paintings and Drawings. Amsterdam, 1970: no. F626, repro.
- The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh. 3 vols. London, 1978:III:201-202, 458.
- Hulsker, Jan. The Complete van Gogh. New York, 1980: 404-6, no. 1770, repro.
- Walther, Ingo F., and Rainer Metzger. Vincent van Gogh: Sämtliche Gemälde. 2 vols. Cologne, 1994: 2:534.
- Sternheim, Thea. Tagebücher 1905-1927. Die Jahre mit Carl Sternhaim. Mainz, 1995:45-46.
- Zemel, Carol. Van Gogh's Progress: Utopia, Modernity, and Late-Nineteenth-Century Art. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 1997: 165-167, repro.
- Shackelford, George T.M. Vincent van Gogh: The Painter and the Portrait. New York, 2000:54, repro.
- Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 370-371, no. 304, color repro.
- Balk, Hildelies. De Kunstpaus: H.P. Bremmer 1871-1956. Bossum, 2006: 389.
- Feilchenfeldt, Walter. By Appointment Only. London and New York, 2006:115, repro.