Overview

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. [1]

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." [2]


(Text by Kimberly Jones, published in the National Gallery of Art exhibition catalogue, Art for the Nation, 2000)

Notes

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.

Inscription

Marks and Labels

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Provenance

J.J. Isaacson [1859-1942], The Hague. Hugo Tutein Nolthenius [1863-1944], Delft, by 1904.[1] Private Collection, Switzerland, by 1945;[2] (M. Knoedler & Co., New York, no. 2845); sold 9 June 1947 to Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney, New York;[3] gift 1998 to NGA.

Exhibition History

1904
Vincent van Gogh, Kunstzalen Oldenzeel, Rotterdam, 1904, no. 70.
1906
Vincent van Gogh, Kunstzalen Oldenzeel, Rotterdam, 1906, no. 46.
1910
Vincent van Gogh, Rotterdamsch Kunstkring, 11 June - 10 July 1910, no. 33.
1912
Sonderbund Ausstellung, Cologne, 1912, no. 86, repro.
1927
Kersttentoonstelling, Museum Boymans, Rotterdam, 1927-1928, no. 34, repro.
1929
Exhibition of Dutch Art 1450-1900, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1929, no. 466.
1930
Vincent Van Gogh en zijn tijdgenooten, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 1930, no. 80.
1941
Exhibition of Tutein Nolthenius collection, Museum Paul Tetar van Elven, Delft, 1941.
1945
Vincent van Gogh, 25 Werke, Hollandhilfe, Galerie Schulthess, Basel, 1945, no. 12.
1946
Ecole de Paris, Kunsthalle Bern, 1946.
1948
21 Masterpieces by 7 Great Masters, Benefit for the Public Education Association, Paul Rosenberg Gallery, New York, November - December 1948, no. 12, repro.
1948
Vincent van Gogh 14 Masterpieces, M. Knoedler & Co., New York, March - April 1948, no. 14.
1949
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.
1951
Selections from Five New York Private Collections, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1951, unnumbered catalogue.
1955
Paintings from Private Collections, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1955, unnumbered catalogue.
1960
The John Hay Whitney Collection, Tate Gallery, London, 1960-1961, no. 32, repro.
1983
The John Hay Whitney Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1983, no. 25, repro.
1986
Van Gogh in Saint-Rémy and Auvers, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1986-1987, no. 22, repro.
1990
Vincent van Gogh, Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh, Amsterdam, 1990, no. 99, repro., as Self-Portrait with Palette.
1998
Gifts to the Nation from Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1998-1999, no cat.
2000
Art for the Nation: Collecting for a New Century, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2000-2001, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
2000
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).
2001
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.).
2004
Van Gogh and Gauguin: An Artistic Dialogue in the South of France, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, 2004, no cat.
2007
Van Gogh and Expressionism, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam; Neue Galerie New York, 2006-2007, unnumbered catalogue, pl. 70 (shown only in New York).
2010
Loan to display with permanent collection, Norton Gallery and School of Art, West Palm Beach, 2010-2011.
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.

Bibliography

1922
Huebner, F.M. Moderne Kunst in den Privatsammlungen Europas. Holland.. Leipzig, 1922: 51-52.
1928
Faille, J.-B. de la. L'Oeuvre de Vincent Van Gogh, catalogue raisonné. 4 vols. Paris and Brussels, 1928: 1:no. 626; 2:repro.
1929
Scherjon, W. De Zelfportretten van Vinvent van Gogh Uit St. Remy. Utrecht, 1929:10, repro.
1930
Douwes, W.F. Vincent van Gogh. Amsterdam, c. 1930:54, repro. frontispiece
1932
Scherjon, W. Catalogue des Tableaux par Vincent can Gogh décrits dans des lettres. Utrecht, 1932:40, repro.
1937
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.
1939
Faille, J.-B. de la. Vincent Van Gogh. New York and Paris, 1939: 431, no. 626, repro.
1945
Goldscheider, Ludwig and Wilhelm Uhde. Vincent van Gogh. Oxford, London and New York, 1945:no. 72, repro.
1946
Schmalenbach, Fritz. "Brief uit Zwitzerland," Phoenix 1, no. 4 (1946):24, repro.
1951
McBride, Henry. "Rockefeller, Whitney, Senior, Odets, Colin." Art News 50 (June-July-August 1951):36, repro.
1956
Rewald, John. "French Paintings in the collection of Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney." The Connoisseur 134, no. 552 (April 1956):136, repro.
1970
Faille, J.-B. de la. The Works of Vincent van Gogh: Paintings and Drawings. Amsterdam, 1970: no. F626, repro.
1978
_The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh. 3 vols. London, 1978:III:201-202, 458.
1980
Hulsker, Jan. The Complete van Gogh. New York, 1980: 404-6, no. 1770, repro.
1994
Walther, Ingo F. Vincent van Gogh: sämliche Gemälde. 2 vols. Cologne, 1994: II:p. 534
1995
Sternheim, Thea. Tagebücher 1905-1927. Die Jahre mit Carl Sternhaim. Mainz, 1995:45-46.
1997
Zemel, Carol. Van Gogh's Progress: Utopia, Modernity, and Late-Nineteenth-Century Art. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 1997: 165-167, repro.
2000
Shackelford, George T.M. Vincent van Gogh: The Painter and the Portrait. New York, 2000:54, repro.
2004
Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 370-371, no. 304, color repro.
2006
Balk, Hildelies. De Kunstpaus: H.P. Bremmer 1871-1956. Bossum, 2006: 389.
2006
Feilchenfeldt, Walter. By Appointment Only. London and New York, 2006:115, repro.

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