Head of a skeleton with a burning cigarette, 1886

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)

  • Oil on Canvas, 32 X 24.5 cm
  • Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)
  • F 212

This curious and somewhat macabre little painting is undated. It was probably executed in the winter of 1885-86, during Van Gogh’s stay in Antwerp. He had traveled there from Nuenen in November 1885, and in January 1886 – in order to have the opportunity to draw and paint after the live model – he enrolled at the art academy.

Students at Antwerp’s traditional academy learned by copying prints and studying plaster casts. After they had progressed sufficiently, they were permitted to study the live model. Skeletons were often used to help them understand human anatomy.

This skull with a cigarette was likely meant as a kind of joke, and probably also as a comment on conservative academic practice.

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The strict and rather abstruse methods of the academy had little in common with Van Gogh’s own ideas. His teachers found his draftsmanship too crude, and he in turn referred to the fruits of his academic training as “damned boring.” He soon came into serious conflict with his teachers and, after only a few weeks, stopped attending classes altogether.

Skulls and Skeletons

There are two other examples of this kind of “studio humor” in Van Gogh’s oeuvre: a hanging skeleton with a cat on a windowsill, also from Antwerp; and a plaster cast disappearing under an enormous top hat from his Paris period.

In the winter of 1887-88, Van Gogh painted two more pictures of skulls, shown floating against a yellow background. Here, too, the artist has given a very personal interpretation of this traditional symbol of human mortality.

Bargue’s Manuals

Before moving to Antwerp, Van Gogh had tried to teach himself the principles of draftsmanship. He drew reproductions in illustrated magazines and studied the popular manuals of the Frenchman Charles Bargue: Cours de dessin and Exercises au fusain pour préparer à l’étude de l’académie d’après nature, both published in 1871. He faithfully copied Bargue’s examples or adopted his poses for his own (clothed) drawings.

Paintings after Plaster Casts

Van Gogh continued to practice drawing in the academic style even after leaving Antwerp. In Paris he briefly joined the studio of Fernand Cormon where, among other things, he drew after plaster casts. He improved steadily and eventually even carried out a number of studies in oil in a looser and freer style. The use of colored lights and shadows in these paintings already bear witness to the influence of Impressionism on Van Gogh’s work.

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