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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.

Provenance

J.J. Isaacson [1859-1942], The Hague. (H.P. Bremmer, The Hague); Hugo Tutein Nolthenius [1863-1944], Delft, by 1904;[1] by inheritance to his brother, Jacques Tutein Nolthenius; on consignment with (Katz Gallery, Switzerland), probably by 1945;[2] on consignment with (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.
1905
Vincent van Gogh, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 1905, no. 195.
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.
2012
Loan to display with permanent collection, Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, 2012-2013.
2014
Van Gogh/Artaud. Le suicidé de la société, Musée d'Orsay, Paris, 2014, no. 13, repro.
2016
Van Gogh's Bedrooms, Art Institute of Chicago, 2016.
Bibliography
1903
Bremmer, H. P., ed. Moderne Kunstwerken. Schilderijen, teekeningen en beeldhouwwerken 1, no. 6 (1903): pl. 45 “Eigendom van den heer H. Tutein Nolthenius te Delft.”
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.
1950
Schapiro, Meyer. Vincent van Gogh. New York, 1950: 102, repro.
1951
McBride, Henry. "Rockefeller, Whitney, Senior, Odets, Colin." Art News 50 (June-July-August 1951):36, repro.
1951
Schapiro, Meyer. Vincent Van Gogh. London, 1951: 102, repro.
1954
Bromig-Kolleritz, Katharina. Die Selbstbildnisse Vincent van Goghs. Ph.D. diss. Ludwig-Maxmilians-Universität, Munich, 1954: 21-22, 113.
1956
Rewald, John. "French Paintings in the collection of Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney." The Connoisseur 134, no. 552 (April 1956):136, repro.
1960
Hammacher, Abraham Marie. Vincent van Gogh Selbstbildnisse. Stuttgart, 1960: 18-19, repro.
1963
Erpel, Fritz. Die Selbstbildnisse Vincent van Goghs. Berlin, 1963: no. 41, 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., and Rainer Metzger. Vincent van Gogh: Sämtliche Gemälde. 2 vols. Cologne, 1994: 2:534.
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.
2014
Brega, Matteo G. “Verso la deflagrazione: Van Gogh e Artaud a Parigi.” Art e dossier 29 (2014): 50.
2014
Guzzoni, Mariella. Van Gogh: l’infinito specchio. Il problema dell’autoritratto e della firma in Vincent. Milan, 2014: repro. 140, 142, pl. 38.
2014
Van Gogh/Artaud: le suicidé de la société. Exh. cat. Musée d'Orsay. Paris, 2014: 86, repro. 87.
2015
Mullins, Edwin. Van Gogh: The Asylum Year. London, 2015: repro. 78.
Explore This Work

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.

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.”

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.

About the Artist

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.

Resources

 

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