Head of a skeleton with a burning cigarette, 1886
Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)
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.