The Self-Portraits of Vincent Van Gogh
Out of all of Vincent van Gogh’s unique abstract paintings and beautifully brushed landscape impressions, perhaps none are more famously recognized and widely regarded worldwide than that of his self-portraits.
Van Gogh stands head and shoulders above many artists with the most famous self-portrait pieces. Indeed, one would struggle to find a close second than a prolific Dutch portraitist.
Sure, there is Di Vinci’s portrait of the Mona Lisa and James Abbot McNeil’s portrait of Whistler’s Mother. But in regards to the self-portrait, no other artist even comes close to van Gogh, other than perhaps fellow Dutch painter and self-portrait aficionado Rembrandt van Rijn.
Moreover, no other artist’s face is more globally recognizable or closely attached to his work than Vincent van Gogh. Exceptionally few casual art fans would even be able to identify Di Vinci or McNeil or any other artist by face alone. But van Gogh’s face is utterly unforgettable and transcends even time itself.
Evolution of Style
Vincent Van Gogh may have been a late starter to the profession of painting, and indeed this humble beginning is also reflected in his first series of self-portraits. However, his work would soon evolve in leaps and bounds over time and quickly as the artist found his own artistic identity and stylistic expression.
In the beginning, Van Gogh’s self-portraits showed very little uniqueness or originality, as did all his early paintings. Instead, they were dull, drab affairs lacking inspiration, color, and imagination.
Self Portrait III 2 – Vincent Van Gogh
The air of the abstract that van Gogh would later become well known for is also sorely missing. This could be compared to a beginner learning to walk before they can run, and once van Gogh learned to ‘run’ boy, did he run.
By the end of his career, his self-portraits were practically unrecognizable from those of his first attempts. With every portrait, their impressionist nature became increasingly more and more abstract and began to personify more and more of what lay ‘behind’ the face captured within the canvas.
Window to The Soul
Many have stated that a picture says a thousand words and that the eyes are the window to the soul, and both these statements could not be any more accurate than when it comes to Van Gogh’s spectacular self-portraits.
Through the artwork of Vincent Van Gogh a look into the artist’s mental and psychic state as practice and expression of his craft can be done. It has been well documented that Van Gogh struggled with depression and mental instability.
Although artists predominantly use self-portraits to practice their skills at little to no cost, they also work as a means of self-analysis and act as an exercise in psychoanalysis. Also, to paint oneself is to understand oneself better.
Van Gogh is no exception to this and is one of its greatest benefactors, as you get to see behind the veil of his self-portrait paintings directly into the artist’s mind. For example, he almost always never looks directly ahead in nearly all his portraits, and very few even depict him as an artist.
This, alongside the varying degree of mostly darker colors used therein and several other factors commonplace in his depictions, paints a picture of a man distraught and carrying a heavy heart of self-loathing and despair.
The Ear and The Asylum
Perhaps none are more telling of the artist’s mental anguish, though, than that of the portraits he painted during his time spent in the Saint-Rémy mental institution in France. It was here that van Gogh produced arguably his most famous self-portrait artwork, i.e., the ones which depict the bandage on his ear after his self-mutilation.
Self Portrait With Bandaged Ear – Vincent Van Gogh
The exact cause of why van Gogh cut his ear is not entirely known and has been heavily speculated upon over the years. Whatever the reason may be, at least this much is true, that van Gogh was, like many other artists, a deeply tortured and tormented soul.
As a result, two months later, he voluntarily checked himself into the mental asylum at Saint-Rémy-de- Provence. It was here that he painted two self-portraits highlighting his bandaged ear.
In these paintings, you can see van Gogh’s declining mental state as the overly distorted and abstract nature in one of them indicates him losing his grip on reality. In contrast, in the other one, van Gogh’s blank, empty expression is one of someone who has lost their mind.
These would be some of van Gogh’s final self-portraits as he would take his own life in the following year. However, they provide us with a deep insight into his mind alongside all his other self-portrait and landscape pieces, which reveal one man’s struggle with their genius and human experience.
The Bottom Line
Perhaps most fascinating about each of Vincent van Gogh’s self-portraits, though, or any artist’s self-portraits for that matter, is that they are intimately linked to a precise moment in that artist’s life. He may have painted over thirty self-portraits in his short time, which sublimely showcase his evolution as a blossoming artist. What’s perhaps more interesting, though, is how they also showcase and acutely express his devolving mental state.
Van Gogh may not have been able to find peace of success within his lifetime, but his legacy and impact on the world of art are undoubtedly a fitting tribute and testimony to one of the greatest artists. May he rest in peace.