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They say—and I am willing to believe it—that it is difficult to know yourself—but it isn’t easy to paint yourself either.

—Vincent van Gogh in a letter to his brother Théo, September 1889

Vincent van Gogh is instantly recognizable by his reddish hair and beard, his gaunt features, and intense gaze. Van Gogh painted some 36 self-portraits in the space of only ten years. Perhaps only Rembrandt produced more, and his career spanned decades. For many artists, like Rembrandt and Van Gogh, the self-portrait was a critical exploration of personal realization and aesthetic achievement.

  • Self-portraits by Vincent van Gogh in museum collections around the world /content/dam/ngaweb/features/slideshows/highlights-vangogh/vangogh-artic-slideshow.jpg

    Vincent van Gogh, Self-portrait, 1887. Joseph Winterbotham Collection, 1954.32, Art Institute of Chicago.
    oil on artist's board, mounted on cradled panel
    16 1/8 x 13 1/4 in. (41 x 32.5 cm)

  • Self-portraits by Vincent van Gogh in museum collections around the world /content/dam/ngaweb/features/slideshows/highlights-vangogh/vangogh-amsterdam-slideshow.jpg

    Vincent van Gogh, Self-portrait as a painter, 1887-12, Paris. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)
    oil on canvas
    65.1 x 50 cm

  • Self-portraits by Vincent van Gogh in museum collections around the world /content/dam/ngaweb/features/slideshows/highlights-vangogh/vangogh-fogg-slideshow.jpg

    Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait Dedicated to Paul Gauguin, 1888. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Bequest from the Collection of Maurice Wertheim, Class of 1906, 1951.65.
    oil on canvas
    61.5 x 50.3 cm (24 3/16 x 19 13/16 in.)
    framed: 90.4 x 79.7 x 8.3 cm (35 9/16 x 31 3/8 x 3 1/4 in.)

  • Self-portraits by Vincent van Gogh in museum collections around the world /content/dam/ngaweb/features/slideshows/highlights-vangogh/highlights-vangogh-courtauld-full.jpg

    Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with a Bandaged Ear, 1889. The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London.
    oil on canvas
    60.5 x 50 cm


  • Self-portraits by Vincent van Gogh in museum collections around the world /content/dam/ngaweb/features/slideshows/highlights-vangogh/highlights-vangogh-dorsay-full.jpg

    Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait, 1889. Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
    oil on canvas
    65.0 x 54.5 cm.
    RF1949-17
    Photo: Gérard Blot
    Photo Credit: Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Art Resource, NY

Slideshow: Self-Portraits by van Gogh

The National Gallery of Art's painting, done at the asylum at St.-Rémy, where Van Gogh had committed himself following a mental breakdown, is among the last self-portraits he made. During his stay he suffered another collapse and remained confined in his room for more than a month, not even venturing into the garden. Once he was able to paint again, this was the first canvas he made, apparently in a single sitting. Van Gogh believed strongly that only work could restore his health. Here, as he had in two earlier self-portraits, he holds the tools that mark his identity as a painter, a palette and brushes, and he wears a painter’s smock. In his short career Van Gogh made almost 2,000 paintings and drawings and wrote more than 800 letters, most to his brother Théo, chronicling his aims and struggles as an artist. He worked long and very deliberately to perfect his art.  

The fervor and fragility of Van Gogh’s life are told on this canvas by stark contrasts of color and restless brushstrokes. Heavy lines of paint seem to emanate from his head like a wavering force field, energized by his own intensity. This background sets off the complementary colors of his green-tinged face and orange hair, keying his image to a higher pitch. “I was thin and pale as a ghost,” Van Gogh wrote as he described this portrait to Théo. “It is dark violet blue and the head whitish with yellow hair, so it has a color effect.”

Van Gogh worked on a second self-portrait at about the same time. Although its background is animated with swirling brushstrokes, the more muted color scheme lends the image a calmer aspect. The artist believed, however, that the painting seen here captured his “true character.”

About the Artist

Vincent van Gogh portrait by Toulouse-Lautrec

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Vincent van Gogh, 1887. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation), d693V/1962.

Vincent van Gogh grew up in the southern Netherlands, where his father was a minister. After seven years at a commercial art firm, Van Gogh’s desire to help humanity led him to become a teacher, preacher, and missionary—yet without success. Working as a missionary among coal miners in Belgium, he had begun to draw in earnest; finally, dismissed by church authorities in 1880, he found his vocation in art.

Van Gogh’s earliest paintings were earth-toned scenes of nature and peasants, but he became increasingly influenced by Japanese prints and the work of the impressionists in France. In 1886 he arrived in Paris, where his real formation as a painter began. Under the influence of Camille Pissarro, Van Gogh brightened his somber palette and juxtaposed complementary colors for luminous effect. Younger artists like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Paul Gauguin prompted him to use color symbolically and for its emotional resonance. 

Although stimulated by the city’s artistic environment, Van Gogh found life in Paris physically exhausting and moved in early 1888 to Arles. He hoped Provence’s warm climate would relax him and that the brilliant colors and strong light of the south would provide inspiration for his art. Working feverishly, Van Gogh pushed his style to greater expression with intense, energetic brushwork and saturated, complementary colors. Yet his densely painted canvases remained connected to nature—their colors and rhythmic surfaces communicate the spiritual power he believed inhabited and shaped nature's forms. His activity was not undisciplined; quite the opposite, he worked diligently to perfect his craft.

Van Gogh hoped to attract like-minded painters to Arles, but only Gauguin joined him, staying about two months. It was soon clear that their personalities and artistic temperaments were incompatible, and Van Gogh suffered a breakdown just before Christmas. In April, following periods of intense work interrupted by recurring mental disturbances, Van Gogh committed himself to a sanitarium in St.-Rémy. He painted whenever he could, believing that in work lay his only chance for sanity. After a year, he returned north to be closer to his brother Théo, who had been his constant support; in July he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Related works in the National Gallery of Art Collection

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    Judith Leyster, Self-Portrait, c. 1630
    oil on canvas
    overall: 74.6 x 65.1 cm (29 3/8 x 25 5/8 in.)
    framed: 97.5 x 87.6 x 9.2 cm (38 3/8 x 34 1/2 x 3 5/8 in.)
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  • Works related to van Gogh's Self-Portrait in the National Gallery of Art collection http://media.nga.gov/public/objects/1/3/4/4/2/7/134427-primary-0-740x560.jpg

    Nicolas de Largillierre, Self-Portrait, 1707
    oil on canvas
    original canvas (approximate size): 90.5 x 71.1 cm (35 5/8 x 28 in.)
    overall: 92.7 x 73 cm (36 1/2 x 28 3/4 in.)
    2006.26.1

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    Alfred Stieglitz, Self-Portrait, Freienwalde a.O., 1886
    platinum print
    image: 10.7 x 7.7 cm (4 3/16 x 3 1/16 in.)
    page size: 13.6 x 22 cm (5 3/8 x 8 11/16 in.)
    1949.3.9

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