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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.


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

Curriculum Connections

  • Language Arts
  • Foreign Language (French)


  • 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?


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 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? To help think through this question, have students draw a speech bubble on printed copies of the image and fill in what they think would be in Van Gogh's speech bubble. 


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


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. 

As a warm-up to help with the main activity, have students create a physical representation of emotions. Each student should draw a wheel and label each section or triangle of the wheel with a different emotion, such as anger or happiness. Ask students to use colors and shapes in each section that they feel correspond to that emotion—for example, the anger section of the wheel might be filled in with the color red and sharp lines. Once complete, students can use their wheels as a guide in creating their own self-portraits that show different moods.

  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.


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.


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,

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.,

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?”

National Core Arts Standards

VA:Cr3.1.6 Reflect on whether personal artwork conveys the intended meaning and revise accordingly.

VA:Re7.1.5 Compare one's own interpretation of a work of art with the interpretation of others.

VA:Re7.2.6 Analyze ways that visual components and cultural associations suggested by images influence ideas, emotions, and actions.

VA:Re8.1.6 Interpret art by distinguishing between relevant and non-relevant contextual information and analyzing subject matter, characteristics of form and structure, and use of media to identify ideas and mood conveyed.


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

Download or borrow Picturing France, a teaching packet and accompanying classroom guide about 19th century painting in France

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

Download or borrow the Vincent Van Gogh teaching packet