Artist Guillaume Bruère at work
Watch this video to see how the artist Guillaume Bruère made his portraits of Vincent.
5 things you need to know about
Only one portrait photo of Vincent has survived. It shows him at the age of 19 with a slightly gruff expression. Almost everything else we know about his appearance comes from the many self-portraits he painted.
No fewer than 35 of them are known. They tell us that he had red hair, green eyes and an angular face. Yet each of those faces is different. Vincent himself wrote:
‘People say – and I’m quite willing to believe it – that it’s difficult to know oneself – but it’s not easy to paint oneself either.’
Vincent produced his self-portraits because he wanted to practise painting people.
The majority of them – over 25 – were done while he was in Paris (1886–88). He was short of money in that period and struggled to find models. So the artist chose the simplest solution and painted himself.
To save money, he sometimes painted self-portraits on the back of other paintings. By doing that, he avoided the costs not only of a model but also of expensive canvas. You can see five such self-portraits in the Van Gogh Museum's online collection.
In July 2022 a hidden self-portrait was discovered in the collection of The National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh.
Vincent often presented himself as restrained and serious in his self-portraits, with a look of concentration on his face..
All the same, something of Vincent’s personality can be found in each self-portrait. He described the last one he did in Paris as ‘quite unkempt and sad’ [...] something like, say, the face of – death’. That’s how he felt at the time: mentally and physically exhausted.
On 23 December 1888, Vincent cut off his left ear in a state of total confusion. It would be the first of a series of mental breakdowns. He was reluctant to discuss the incident in his letters, but he did ‘report’ on it in two self-portraits.
Vincent did not portray himself as a sick, broken man for the sake of effect or to arouse pity. He was convinced that painting would help him to heal. ‘I retain all good hope’, he wrote to Theo.
Many artists have drawn inspiration from Vincent’s self-portraits. They have been reproduced an infinite number of times since the early 20th century.
The self-portraits put a face to the man who became the archetype of the artist as tortured genius. The yellow straw hat is now firmly associated with Vincent and his love of the sun and the colour yellow.