Self-portrait as a painter, 1888

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)

  • Oil on Canvas, 65.5 X 50.5 cm
  • Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)
  • F 522


Although he painted many self-portraits, this is one of the few in which Van Gogh depicted himself as an artist, with all the necessary equipment: palette, brushes, and a canvas on a wooden easel.

Contrasting colors, such as the blue of the smock and the orange-red of the beard, are set right next to each other in order to strengthen their effect. The red and green strokes of the face are placed so close together that they appear as a grey shadow when seen from a distance.

While most of Van Gogh’s other self-portraits are rather sketchy, this one has been finished down to the last detail. The short, dry strokes have been applied with care. Van Gogh probably worked on the painting for some time, and he was apparently quite satisfied with it: in contrast to most of his works in this genre, he has signed it prominently.

More information about "Self-portrait as a painter"

Exercises

Van Gogh painted a total of 35 self-portraits during the course of his career – of these, 29 date from Paris. He very much wanted to paint portraits in this period, but could not afford models.

Using his own reflection was a natural, inexpensive and easy solution. It allowed him to experiment with various styles, techniques and effects of light and color. As he later wrote to Theo: “If I succeed in painting the colors of my own face, which is not without its own difficulties, then I should be able to paint those of other men and women.”

This series of self-portraits clearly illustrates how Van Gogh’s coloration became brighter and livelier over time. There is an enormous difference between the brown tints of the earliest studies and the light, bright colors of the Self-Portrait with Straw Hat and pipe. The development of his characteristic “dash style” can also be followed in these examples.

Van Gogh Through the Eyes of Others

Van Gogh had a number of artist-friends in Paris. At the studio of the painter Fernand Cormon he had met Paul Signac, Emile Bernard, John Russell and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. The latter two painted his portrait.

Toulouse-Lautrec made an impressionistic, colorful pastel likeness, depicting his friend at a table in a café with a glass of absinthe. Russell painted a darker, more “classic” image of Van Gogh as a painter, with a serious look and a brush or pencil in his hand.

Later, when they were living together in Arles, his friend Paul Gauguin also immortalized him as an artist – in Portrait of Van Gogh Painting ‘Sunflowers,’ now in the collection of the Van Gogh Museum.


Mood

In addition to depicting himself as a professional artist, Van Gogh also strove to reflect his somber mood in this work. In a letter to his sister Willemien, he spoke of his wrinkled forehead and red beard as “rather untidy and sad.” Evidence of depression during his last months in Paris can be found in other letters as well: “When I left Paris [I was] totally broken, very sick and virtually an alcoholic,” he wrote several months later to Gauguin.

Economizing and Recycling

Most of the Parisian self-portraits are somewhat smaller than the Self-Portrait as an Artist. They were clearly meant as studies and as experiments. This can be seen in the loose, very free manner in which many were executed, and in the use of cheap materials such as cardboard in place of linen or canvas.

Van Gogh also saved money by using some of his supports twice, painting on both sides. He made a number of studies of his own face on the back of earlier still lifes, and on the reverse of one of the oil sketches for The Potato Eaters. Another self-portrait was even painted over an older work, one Van Gogh apparently did not feel was very successful.

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