Van Gogh’s Self-Portraits

Grade Level: 5–8

Students will examine Vincent van Gogh's self-portraits and letters to better understand the artist’s life story and personality. Then, they will paint two Van Gogh-style self-portraits to show two parts of their own personality and write a letter describing the one that reveals their “true character” best. This lesson also contains opportunities for French language integration.

van-gogh

Vincent van Gogh
Dutch, 1853–1890
Self-Portrait, 1889
oil on canvas, 57.2 x 43.8 cm (22 1/2 x 17 1/4 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney

 

NAEA Standards

1-B Students intentionally take advantage of the qualities and characteristics of art media, techniques, and processes to enhance communication of their experiences and ideas.
3-A Students integrate visual, spatial, and temporal concepts with content to communicate intended meaning in their artworks.
6-B Students describe ways in which the principles and subject matter of other disciplines taught in the school are interrelated with the visual arts.

Curriculum Connections

  • Language Arts
  • Foreign Language (French)

Materials

  • Smart Board or computer with ability to project images from slideshow
  • Student photograph (tell students several days before the lesson begins that they will need to bring in a photo of themselves)
  • Photocopier
  • Scissors
  • Backing paper or cardboard
  • Glue
  • Tempera, poster, or oil paint/pastels
  • Writing materials

Warm-up Question

Why do artists make self-portraits?

Background

Do you think "mad genius" when you hear the name Vincent van Gogh? You are not alone. Van Gogh's life was complicated by early failures, personal eccentricities, and an adult diagnosis of epilepsy. But he also succeeded with a daunting achievement—becoming a great artist. During his lifetime, Van Gogh was scarcely appreciated; he sold only one painting. A century after his death, however, Van Gogh's paintings of sunflowers, his textured landscapes, and his intense portraits and self-portraits—all expressive and emotive in color, with thick and energetic brushwork—are among the most recognized paintings on the planet.

rembrandt

Rembrandt van Rijn
Dutch, 1606–1669
Self-Portrait, 1659
oil on canvas, 84.5 x 66 cm (33 1/4 x 26 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Andrew W. Mellon Collection

Van Gogh painted this self-portrait shortly after suffering from a breakdown while at an asylum in Saint Remy. Although painting no fewer than 36 self-portraits in his brief lifetime of 37 years, he felt this particular one captured his “true character.” In this portrait, he posed himself as the established painter he believed he had become, despite his lack of sales. He gave himself a serious expression, a three-quarter pose, and the props—brushes, palette, and easel—that Rembrandt and other great painters of the past had used in their own self-portraits. Van Gogh had seen such classic self-portraits in the Louvre in Paris.  By linking himself to the great artists of the past, Van Gogh is expressing his wish to be taken seriously as an artist. He seems to show, however briefly, a new self-confidence.

While the composition of this self-portrait suggests self-assurance, Van Gogh’s expression and restless brushwork suggest strain and even worry. Building rhythmic patterns of thickly painted strokes on his canvases: dots, short stripes, parallel marks lined up straight, radiating from a point, or flowing across the canvas, comma-shaped marks, swirly strokes, angled lines, and lots of cross-hatching, he conveys a nervous energy. By placing complementary colors (red-green, orange-blue, yellow-purple) right next to each other, he made the canvas seem to vibrate.

Guided Practice

What do you think Van Gogh is saying to the viewer in this self-portrait?

orsay-self-portrait

Vincent van Gogh
Dutch, 1853–1890
Self-Portrait, 1889
oil on canvas, 65 x 54.5 cm
© Musée d'Orsay

Van Gogh painted another self-portrait soon after this one (see left). Van Gogh says he was calmer in the one with the light blue swirling background. Does that surprise you? If you thought the swirling background might suggest he was more upset or nervous, you’re not alone. Van Gogh was making a comparison. The dark swirls of paint, his greenish skin tone, and burning gaze make the earlier portrait more agitated.

To better acquaint students with Van Gogh and his body of work, read the following excerpts from his letters and then present the slideshow, Van Gogh at the National Gallery of Art. While they are listening to the letters and viewing the works of art, have them jot down their ideas in response to these two questions: What are the most distinctive qualities of a Van Gogh work? How are elements of his biography reflected in his style of painting?

“To express the love of two lovers by a marriage of complementary colors, their mingling and opposition, the mysterious vibration of kindred tones. To express the thought of a brow by the radiance of a light one against a somber background . . .” —September 1888

“The best pictures, and from a technical point of view, the most complete, seen from nearby, are but patches of color side by side, and only make an effect at a certain distance.” —November 1885

“Instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I have before my eyes, I use color more arbitrarily, in order to express myself, more forcefully.” —August 1888

“It's . . . color that suggests ardor, temperament, any kind of emotion.” —September 1888

“I should like to paint the portrait of an artist friend . . . Behind the head, instead of painting the ordinary wall of the mean room, I paint infinity, a plain background of the richest blue . . . and the bright head against the rich blue background gets a mysterious effect, like a star in the sky, in the depths of azure.” —August 1888

“It's mental exercise to balance the six essential colors—red—blue—yellow—orange—violet—green—it takes work and dry calculation . . .”—July 1888

“So I have tried to express, as it were, the powers of darkness in a low public house, by soft . . . green and malachite, contrasting with yellow-green and harsh blue-greens, and all this in an atmosphere like a devil's furnace, of pale sulphur.” —September 1888

“I am working on a portrait of mother because the black and white photograph annoys me so. That of mother . . . will be an ashen gray against a green background, the dress carmine . . . I don't know if it will be like her, but I want to give the impression of blonde coloring . . . it will again be in very thick impasto.” —October 1888

Slideshow: Van Gogh at the National Gallery of Art

  • Van Gogh at the National Gallery of Art Lessons & Activities http://media.nga.gov/public/objects/1/0/6/3/8/2/106382-primary-0-740x560.jpg

    Vincent van Gogh
    Dutch, 1853–1890
    Self-Portrait, 1889
    oil on canvas, 57.2 x 43.8 cm (22 1/2 x 17 1/4 in.)
    National Gallery of Art, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney

  • Van Gogh at the National Gallery of Art Lessons & Activities http://media.nga.gov/public/objects/6/1/3/7/1/61371-primary-0-740x560.jpg

    Vincent van Gogh
    Dutch, 1853–1890
    Flower Beds in Holland, c. 1883
    oil on canvas on wood, 48.9 x 66 cm (19 1/4 x 26 in.)
    National Gallery of Art, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon

  • Van Gogh at the National Gallery of Art Lessons & Activities http://media.nga.gov/public/objects/7/6/2/1/8/76218-primary-0-740x560.jpg

    Vincent van Gogh
    Dutch, 1853–1890
    Harvest—The Plain of La Crau, 1888
    reed pen and brown ink over graphite on wove paper, 24.2 x 31.9 cm (9 1/2 x 12 9/16 in.)
    Faille 1970, no. 1486
    National Gallery of Art, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art

  • Van Gogh at the National Gallery of Art Lessons & Activities http://media.nga.gov/public/objects/4/6/6/2/6/46626-primary-0-740x560.jpg

    Vincent van Gogh
    Dutch, 1853–1890
    La Mousmé, 1888
    oil on canvas, 73.3 x 60.3 cm (28 7/8 x 23 3/4 in.)
    National Gallery of Art, Chester Dale Collection

  • Van Gogh at the National Gallery of Art Lessons & Activities http://media.nga.gov/public/objects/5/2/1/7/8/52178-primary-0-740x560.jpg

    Vincent van Gogh
    Dutch, 1853–1890
    Farmhouse in Provence, 1888
    oil on canvas, 46.1 x 60.9 cm (18 1/8 x 24 in.)
    National Gallery of Art, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection

  • Van Gogh at the National Gallery of Art Lessons & Activities http://media.nga.gov/public/objects/4/6/5/0/6/46506-primary-0-740x560.jpg

    Vincent van Gogh
    Dutch, 1853–1890
    Roulin's Baby, 1888
    oil on canvas, 35 x 23.9 cm (13 3/4 x 9 7/16 in.)
    National Gallery of Art, Chester Dale Collection

  • Van Gogh at the National Gallery of Art Lessons & Activities http://media.nga.gov/public/objects/4/6/6/2/7/46627-primary-0-740x560.jpg

    Vincent van Gogh
    Dutch, 1853–1890
    The Olive Orchard, 1889
    oil on canvas, 73 x 92.1 cm (28 3/4 x 36 1/4 in.)
    National Gallery of Art, Chester Dale Collection

  • Van Gogh at the National Gallery of Art Lessons & Activities http://media.nga.gov/public/objects/1/6/3/3/2/3/163323-primary-0-740x560.jpg

    Vincent van Gogh
    Dutch, 1853–1890
    Green Wheat Fields, Auvers, 1890
    oil on canvas, 72.39 × 91.44 cm (28 1/2 × 36 in.)
    National Gallery of Art, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon

  • Van Gogh at the National Gallery of Art Lessons & Activities http://media.nga.gov/public/objects/1/0/7/1/7/10717-primary-0-740x560.jpg

    Vincent van Gogh
    Dutch, 1853–1890
    Dr. Gachet (Man with a Pipe), 1890
    etching, 18.2 x 15 cm (7 3/16 x 5 7/8 in.)
    Faille 1970, no. 1664
    National Gallery of Art, Rosenwald Collection

  • Van Gogh at the National Gallery of Art Lessons & Activities http://media.nga.gov/public/objects/7/2/3/2/8/72328-primary-0-740x560.jpg

    Vincent van Gogh
    Dutch, 1853–1890
    Roses, 1890
    oil on canvas, 71 x 90 cm (27 15/16 x 35 7/16 in.)
    National Gallery of Art, Gift of Pamela Harriman in memory of W. Averell Harriman

  • Van Gogh at the National Gallery of Art Lessons & Activities http://media.nga.gov/public/objects/4/6/5/0/5/46505-primary-0-740x560.jpg

    Vincent van Gogh
    Dutch, 1853–1890
    Girl in White, 1890
    oil on canvas, 66.7 x 45.8 cm (26 1/4 x 18 1/16 in.)
    National Gallery of Art, Chester Dale Collection

Activity

Students will make two self-portraits in the guise of Van Gogh on separate days to show two different sides or moods of their personalities:

  1. Students (or teacher) will make a light photocopy of their photograph (such as a school or sport picture). They may want to enlarge it in order to have plenty of space for "Van Gogh" brushwork.
  2. Using one color in varying hues, students will paint the entire background paper using Van Gogh-like brushstrokes.
  3. Next, students will cut out their photocopied portrait—both face and clothing—to make a silhouette. This cut-out will be glued onto the painted background.
  4. Lastly, students will use a complementary color to their background to paint over their photo image using different types of brushwork in varying hues by adding white or black. For example, if their background is in yellows, their portrait should be painted with purples, reds for greens, oranges for blues, or vice versa.
  5. On another day, students will create a second self-portrait following the same instructions, but change the colors and types of brushstrokes to show a different side of their personality.

Extension

Van Gogh wrote detailed letters (see more excerpts) analyzing his thinking about his work. He even wrote a letter to his brother, Theo, about the two self-portraits presented in the Guided Practice section.

“Theo:

They say—and I gladly believe it—that it is difficult to know yourself, but it isn’t easy to paint oneself either. For the time being, I am working on two portraits of myself—since I have no other models—for it is high time for me to paint some figures. One of them I started the first day I got up; I was thin and pale like a ghost. It is dark blue-violet, the head whitish with yellow hair, in other words, an effect of color. But since then I have begun another one, three quarter length on a light background. You will see when you put up the portrait with the light background that I have just finished . . . that I look saner now, even much more so. I am inclined to think that the portrait will tell you how I am better than my letter and this will reassure you . . . .

Ever yours,
Vincent.”

Or have students read the letter in French:

“Mon cher frère,

On dit—et je le crois fort volontiers—qu’il est difficile de se connaître soi-même—mais il n’est pas aisé non plus de se peindre soi-même. Ainsi je travaille à deux portraits de moi dans ce moment—faute d’autre modèle—parce qu’il est plus que temps que je fasse un peu de figure. L’un je l’ai commencé le premier jour que je me suis levé, j’étais maigre, pâle comme un diable. C’est bleu violet foncé et la tête blanchâtre avec des cheveux jaunes, donc un effet de couleur. Mais depuis j’en ai recommencé un de trios-quarts sur fond clair. . . . tu verras ceci quand tu mettras le portrait sur fond clair que je viens de terminer . . . qu’à présent j’ai l’air plus sain qu’alors et même beacoup. Je suis même porté à croire que le portrait te dira mieux que ma lettre comment je vais et que cela te rassurera . . . .

t. à. t.,
Vincent.”

Students will write a letter to a friend about the self-portrait they feel captures their “true character” best. Prompt students to tell their friend why they based their self-portrait on that particular photograph and explain the reasons behind using specific colors and types of brushstrokes. Lastly, students will communicate what this portrait reveals about themselves and how it answers the question, “Who am I?”

Related Resources

Read more of Van Gogh’s letters online 

Visit the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam

Download a family-oriented guide to Van Gogh and Gauguin's friendship

Download or borrow the teaching packet Picturing France with the accompanying Classroom Guide

Listen to an audio tour about Van Gogh’s Self Portrait

Borrow the Vincent Van Gogh Teaching Packet

Contact

Questions or comments? E-mail us at classroom@nga.gov