Analysis of Self-Portraits of Vincent van Gogh
By Elizabeth Harding
Vincent – Model, Myth & Human Being
"…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.
About the Author
Visit the Life of Van Gogh website for more information on Van Gogh paintings, or to get our own Biography of Vincent Van Gogh.
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