In the years between 1886 and 1889, Van Gogh’s time in Paris in Arles, more than two dozen separate self-portraits were painted. As some of his most famous images, these portraits have been debated for years, scholars unsure of his purpose in painting them. The composition itself is believed to be derived from a single photograph taken in 1886 that directly resembles the composition of many of those self-portraits.
Vincent Van Gogh’s self-portrait painting has been openly compared to that of Rembrandt. However, Van Gogh completed his portraits in a markedly shorter time than Rembrandt, repeatedly painting the same pose with varying displays and colors.
Van Gogh’s Varying Self Portrait Styles
Self Portrait (Blue) – 1889
Each of the self-portraits displays the same intensity in the eyes, focusing intently outward, with some degree of unspoken emotion. However, the rest of the composition varies dramatically from one painting to the next. Each painting is composed of differing styles, ranging from his early elementary styles to the Impressionist and Neo-impressionist styles of his Paris years and beyond.
Each painting utilizes a solid background of varying color. Never does Van Gogh paint himself in landscape, nor does he often utilize any form of props. There are two exceptions to this rule though, including the portrait of Van Gogh painting on a canvas and the first self portrait with a bandaged ear, painted in 1889 by Van Gogh. Additionally, the change in attire has been noted from the earliest self portraits to those painted in Arles and Saint-Remy.
While his early portraits, depicting his Paris years, are often of a well-kempt, powerful looking Van Gogh in a nice suit, his latter portraits depict a man who is often missing something. From the portrait depicting Van Gogh as a Buddhist monk with his hair, to the painting of Van Gogh clean shaven or the two depicting Van Gogh’s bandaged ear, each image shows Van Gogh missing a small part of his identity, possibly seeking something else instead.
Purpose of the Van Gogh Portraits
Self portrait with bandage – 1889
Numerous reasons have been attached for the prolific use of the self-portrait by Van Gogh in his craft. On one hand, there have been theories from critics such as James Risser that the portraits represented some form of self-analysis. It is commonly believed that Van Gogh suffered from severe Manic Depression, evidenced in his combined bouts of manic outbursts and self-mutilation – including when Van Gogh cut off his ear – and depressive seclusions from society, evidenced by the self-inflicted gunshot wound that took his life.
In each of his self-portraits, the intensity of emotion present in the eyes is contrasted with some form of color or deformity in the face. The purposeful painting of the bandaged ear in two of his self portraits, especially in the self-portrait with him smoking a pipe depict a depressed, self aware man, unhappy with his life and his actions, possibly in response to his depressive state.
Van Gogh’s Buddhist Self-Portrait
Self Portrait – 1887
These paintings could very well have been a combination of self-critique and despair over having lost control of his life and his actions. A painting that reveals another deepened aspect of Van Gogh, displaying a lifestyle that would have contrasted with that of his youth and young adulthood is Self Portrait Dedicated to Gauguin. This painting, completed in Arles in 1888 depicts Van Gogh as a bald headed Buddhist monk. He describes the painting himself as a “portrait of a Bronze…worshipping the eternal Buddha”. The calm displayed in this painting depicts the ideal of a “calm monk” with absolute control, control that Van Gogh sought for most of his life.
During this time, Van Gogh was berated constantly by the wavering insecurity of his own sanity and the image of him as a Buddhist monk displays how he was capable of maintaining some vestige of control.
A More Technical Cause
There is of course the possibility that the majority of Van Gogh’s self-portraits were composed simply as technical experiments, allowing Van Gogh to attempt new styles and techniques. Van Gogh stated repeatedly that he could not often find models that suited his needs and so it is possible that he became his own model. The varying degrees of style and attention to certain details that make up the bulk of Van Gogh’s portraits carefully parallel his own progression into, through, and out of his Impressionist years in Paris.