“…it is difficult to know yourself, but it isn’t easy to paint oneself either.” –Vincent van Gogh
From 1885 through 1890, van Gogh painted at least 30 self-portraits, an amazing number of likenesses to complete in such a short time span. They represent his most active years as a master artist, and all carry the distinctive van Gogh intensity with which every picture he ever made was imbued.
Many of his early self-portraits resemble the great self-portraits carried out by Rembrandt van Rijn in the 1600’s. A comparison between the two elicits several points of similarities, such as the serious demeanor, elegant and dramatic lighting and a certain likeness in the visage itself. These are portraits of two master Dutch artists from vastly different times, but a viewer making such comparisons tends to feel the two would have probably been great friends.
A tour through Vincent’s many self-portraits displays not only his ability to paint character in an intensely personal way, but also his comfort with different styles. During his brief but almost supernaturally productive ten years as an artist, van Gogh made the transition from realism to impressionism (especially pointalism) to expressionism with nary a glitch. His own style was quite firmly in place by the last few years of his life, and is now either labeled “expressionistic” or “post-impressionist.”
Two of his most famous self-portraits would never have been painted were it not for his friend and eventual nemesis, Paul Gauguin. One is a haunting and disquieting painting called “Self-Portrait Dedicated to Paul Gauguin,” and the other is simply titled “Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear.”
The incident which caused van Gogh to slice off most of an earlobe is possibly the most famous in art history. During a violent disagreement with his friend Gauguin, Vincent heard the words “Kill him” in that ear, which he opted to remove rather than obey. This great artist suffered throughout his life from unruly emotional seizures and great mental strife which led him to enter an asylum for a year and then to commit suicide.
It is easy to romanticize such a bigger-than life character whose work consistently creates enormous impact in the viewer’s heart and mind. We say, “Oh you were misunderstood, but we understand, Vincent.” And indeed, we do understand. The fact is, his greatest gift was the ability to make paintings that are at once tremendously moving and also simple enough to communicate with diamondlike clarity.
Though largely unrecognized during his lifetime, Van Gogh believed himself to be a true artist. His 37 years on this planet were not easy nor pleasant, being full of depressive and violent episodes. But if his body of self-portraits tell us anything, it is that he knew, loved and accepted himself as much as the beloved friends and peasants he depicted with so much care and compassion.
The room, though pleasant, all but reels with movement. Whether consciously or not, van Gogh painted the perspective, walls and decorations all atilt, so that we get the impression of a ship’s cabin in a stormy sea. Strangely, the two chairs both face toward the bulky wooden bed, and the furniture blocks the two lilac doors. Paintings on the wall jut into the room as if almost ready to fall off, and the walls themselves are not square. The beveled ceiling and yellow double shutters are whacked off without mercy in the cropping of the canvas, and the whole room seems crowded into one clumsy area toward the window at the back. Yet somehow, the entire effect is somehow quite pleasing.
Before he left Paris in 1888 to go live in the south of France at Arles, Vincent met most of what are now considered the famous Impressionist artists of that period. Moved and excited by their work and ideas, he developed the dream of creating an artists’ commune he labeled “Studio of the South.” The now famous Yellow House in Arles became the focal point for his dream. He readied the Yellow House for his guests, painting still lifes and decorating with the intensity reflected in his artwork.
The artist who became his greatest influencer, closest friend and eventually his downfall, Paul Gauguin, was the first and only member to join the “Studio of the South.” His visit with van Gogh was fraught with tension and he left after just over two months. The two artists disagreed to the point of violent arguments about almost every subject, but especially about painting. During one such argument at the end of Gauguin’s stay, Vincent, a mentally unstable epileptic, heard a voice in his ear saying, “Kill him.” Rather than obey, he cut off most of the offending ear. It was the denouement of an incident that placed him for all time among the ranks of the greats who were unable to cope with life, but nevertheless gifted the world with masterpiece after masterpiece.