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    Vincent van Gogh

    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 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.

    More Works from the Collection

    Shown from about the waist up, a woman with smooth, pale skin sits in a chair facing our right in front of a canvas on an easel in this vertical portrait. She leans onto her right elbow, which rests on the seat back. She turns her face to look at us, lips slightly parted. Her dress has a black bodice and a deep rose-pink skirt and sleeves. She wears a translucent white cap over her hair, which has been tightly pulled back. A stiff, white, plate-like ruff encircles her neck and reaches to her shoulders. She holds a paintbrush in her right hand and clutches about twenty brushes, a wooden paint palette, and a rag in her left hand, at the bottom right of the canvas. The painting behind her shows a man wearing robin's egg-blue and playing a violin.

    Judith Leyster, Self-Portrait, c. 1630, oil on canvas, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss, 1949.6.1

    Nicolas de Largillierre, Self-Portrait, 1707, oil on canvas, Patrons' Permanent Fund, 2006.26.1

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