I have encountered van Gogh self-portrait during my visit to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. This painting is a part of a private collection, but it is displayed there among the works of other impressionists (“Self-Portrait”). The work is called Self-Portrait. It was made by a Dutch painter, Vincent van Gogh, in 1889. The painter used oil and canvas as his medium. Van Gogh is one of the most recognized and famous impressionists whose art career lasted only ten years. For this short period, he is known to have produced around 36 self-portraits, which is the second result only to Rembrandt. This obsession of his with self-exploration through portraits of himself is what drew me to this last work of his.
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This painting depicts Vincent van Gogh himself during his work. He is portrayed in his working garment, with palette and brushes in his hand, and with his head half-turned (Mullins 142). The portrait is painted on a canvas with oil paint. The size of the painting is 44 centimeters wide and 57 tall. The artist used mainly vertical lines with a few horizontal ones. The implied line-up of the painting is also vertical, which is typical for portraits. The shapes in the portrait are organic and edgeless. The volume is created with shade. The illusion of space is visualized using placement and shading. Thus, the palette is placed in the foreground closer to the viewer, and the body and the head are painted behind it, shaded to separate them from the background.
The colors of the body and background are mostly cold, ranging from dark blue to light blue. The palette and face feature warmer colors such as light green, beige, and orange. The texture does not appear to be present.
Here, color seems to be the main visual element that sets the mood. The painting demonstrates a proportional inequality of colors in favor of the cold ones. Vertical lines dictate the height and proportion of the body and face (“Elements of Art”). In the background, a combination of vertical and horizontal lines forms an oval of the head. The internal relationship of the objects such as the body, head, and the palette is set in the two-dimensional space. The form communicates the content in a general way to let the viewer recognize the face, eyes, palette, clothes, and so on. Color and vivid lining separate the objects.
In particular, one may note that the eyes of van Gogh are the key medium to transmit his mood and the internal crisis. It seems that their focus is on his internal world rather than the outside environment. The picture is dominated by red, brown, ocher, green, and yellow colors. The brush technique of the smear is quite large, so the canvas looks more like a panel made of wax or colored plasticine. Such expressiveness of van Gogh as well as his technique unveil the characteristic exaggeration of the drawing and its symbolism that refers to the artist’s background.
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The harmony seems to be achieved as all objects are symmetrical and proportional. More to the point, the blue and green colors used by the artist are quite harmonious and calm. However, in combination with red hair and beard, they reveal the psychological tone of the given picture. The portrait does not feature too many details similar to other works of van Gogh. Balance is also present as the face parts are not oversized or undersized. The face appears to be dominant in the painting, which is executed through color and placement. Movement is non-present. The visual economy in van Gogh’s paintings is self-evident and is brightly underlined, as details are almost non-existent.
It is the first painting that van Gogh completed after he had recovered from a minor incident of epilepsy while his voluntary commitment to the residence at the Asylum in autumn of 1889 (Ginn 883). As he wrote to his brother, he was unwilling to work on paintings for a long time. He finally decided to do it because he wanted to challenge himself, as self-portraits were a non-trivial task for him (“To Theo van Gogh, Thursday 5, September 1889”).
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The work does not seem to represent anything from the contemporary world, as its style does not concern itself with details that may be identified with a particular time or place. It features only the attempt of van Gogh to find or understand himself. When I first saw the painting, it made me feel sad because I have a general knowledge about the fate of the artist and his endless struggle with his inner self (van Gogh-Bonger and Gayford 31).
In this painting, he represents his physical and mental weakness that was inflicted by a long period of recovery. He looks thoughtfully at the viewer, who is himself, apparently trying to understand himself and what causing his unhealthy state of mind. His strong belief in the work as a healing power for his mind can be seen as the central idea in this painting with the palette in his hand reinforcing this assumption.
Peering on Self-Portrait by van Gogh, it is possible to mention that this work is a vivid example of the artist’s study of color that captures all his attention. Van Gogh grasps it separately and no longer gives it a purely descriptive role as in times of narrower realism. Following the example of the Impressionists, the palette is bright and as if prepares for the subsequent yellow-blue explosion – those riotous colors that have become characteristic of the last years of his work (van Gogh-Bonger and Gayford 32). Bright colors and cheerful mood, which convey the given painting of van Gogh is evidence that he hopes for a better life. This is to some extent connected with the social events of that time and with his difficult life when some of his pictures were merely exchanged for living to say nothing about food.
This work appears to have a sentimental value to those who have at least briefly acquainted themselves or themselves with the life and works of the artist. It was his battle with inner afflictions that finally wore him down and that is depicted in most of his 36 self-portraits. For modern people, it does not seem to contain any implicit value except for contemplation on self-exploration and mental illness that was partly the contributor to his unique style and the bane that obstructed his career. It is worth considering among others due to the expert use of color as a mood-setting instrument.
To me, the main value in this work is the feelings that van Gogh managed to communicate. Provided the viewer knows of that period of his life, they may also feel sad. Each person sees art differently, and there may be things that I could not understand about the painting, which is why it is paramount to share this experience with others.
“Elements of Art.” Getty Trust, n.d. Web.
Ginn, Stephen. “He Loved Colour and He Let It Show.” The Lancet Psychiatry, vol. 2, no.10, 2015, pp. 880-889.
Mullins, Edwin. Van Gogh: The Asylum Year. Unicorn Press, 2015.
“Self-Portrait.” National Gallery of Art, n.d. Web.
“To Theo van Gogh, Thursday 5, September 1889.” Vangoghletters.org, n.d. Web.
Van Gogh-Bonger, Jo, and Martin Gayford. A Memoir of Vincent van Gogh. Getty Publications, 2017.