Self Portraits by Vincent Van Gogh

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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


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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.

The Biography of Vincent Van Gogh

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The life of Vincent Van Gogh is a short one, composing only 37 years between March 30, 1853 and July 29, 1890. However, any biography on Vincent Van Gogh is full of intriguing stories. This short biography of Vincent van Gogh only covers the most important details of his life though.

Born in Groot-Zundert, Netherlands, Vincent Van Gogh would grow up to become one of the most influential Impressionist/Post-Impressionist painters of all time. His images have become world famous and for years have influenced generations of new painters. Because he was born only 150 years ago, the life and times of Van Gogh are incredibly well known and well documented. An autobiography for Vincent van Gogh has been compiled from the letters he wrote to his brother Theo during and throughout his travels. These letters often accompanied the paintings that Vincent sent Theo to keep for him.

In the early days of Vincent van Gogh’s bio he was known as an altruistic man who believed that his calling was in religion and helping the poor. He failed repeatedly to enter and study theology in school but eventually found placement as a missionary in Belgium. However, he was eventually expelled from this position for impersonating a priest.

His brothers would eventually symbolize the path Van Gogh would take in life. Three of them were art dealers, and one in particular, Theo, was a close confidant of Vincent, constantly offering him assistance and a means to find his way out of squalor and depression. Van Gogh was constantly depressed and it was Theo who offered him the chance to study the basics of art so as to overcome the pain of his personal relationships.

One of the first of those relationships to collapse was his attempts to marry his recently widowed cousin. After being initially rejected by her, Van Gogh was rejected by her father for his lack of financial stability. Van Gogh spent a deal of time in The Hague after this rejection, studying art and carrying on a long relationship with a prostitute. Until that point supported to some degree by his cousin, Anton Mauve, Van Gogh soon found himself without any support as Mauve disapproved of the lifestyle. It is believed that Van Gogh might have fathered a son with the prostitute by the name of Willem.

In 1886, Van Gogh made his way to Paris where his most famous and prolific years of painting would begin. He began work in a studio and was given the chance to share his work with some of the most influential and well known painters of the day. It did not take long though for Van Gogh’s depressive nature to get the better of him. After only three years, his vices of drinking and smoking as well as his constant depression forced him to self admit to the Saint Remy Asylum. It was here that he would paint some of his most famous works such as Starry Night and Portrait of Dr. Gachet. After one year in the asylum, Van Gogh left. A month later, he left the asylum, after which he walked into a field and shot himself in the chest with a revolver. After the shooting, it took two full days for Van Gogh to succumb and die from the wounds.

The History of Vincent Van Gogh’s Images

Vincent Van Gogh did not begin painting until 1880 when he was already 27 years old. He began at the most basic levels, working from beginners’ handbooks such as “Cours de dessin”. After two years he started looking for commissions to keep his art career afloat. He found them in his Uncle, Cornelias Marinus, the owner of a world famous gallery in Amsterdam. Unfortunately, his work did not prove to live up to his uncle’s standards and even after a second commission, Van Gogh was unable to impress him. Thus the earliest VanGogh paintings were considered failures.

 Potato Eaters

Potato Eaters – 1885

However, despite his failure to impress Marinus, Van Gogh continued painting, shutting himself into a studio and working tirelessly to improve his technique. In 1882, he began painting what many would consider his first masterpieces, the single person and item, black and white studies that led to his later revelations. The next year, he started working on multi-figure paintings. These however, were largely destroyed after one of his brothers commented on their lack of appeal and liveliness.

In 1883, after more than a year spent improving his technique and painting with the support of his brother Theo, Van Gogh visited famous Hague scholars such as Weissenbruch and Blommers to learn more about the techniques and technical aspects of painting. It was in Nuenen that Vincent Van Gogh’s full size paintings were started. The Potato Eaters, painted in 1885, is considered by many to be his first full sized masterpiece. Two other large canvas paintings, The Old Tower and The Cottage, survive from this time period. Unfortunately, he destroyed many of the rest.

After more failures progressing in the art world, Vincent Van Gogh came to the conclusion that his short comings were a result of technical problems, not artistic talent. So, he left for Paris to study further and better improve his technique. While in Paris, Van Gogh learned much about the impressionist movement that had the art world so entranced. He did not, however, progress much himself until after moving to Arles.

In Arles, Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings reverted back to many of the more traditional theories of painting that had intrigued him as a youth. He began painting series of images that reflected particular subjects for a given purpose. The first of these, Flowering Orchards was painted in 1888 and depicted series of three paintings. In a series of single figure paintings, he created The Roulin Family and after Gauguin had made the move to Arles to live beside Vincent Van Gogh, painting of his famous The Decoration for the Yellow House series was commenced.

 Le Moulin de la Galette

Le Moulin de la Galette – 1886

The final period of Van Gogh’s life, those years spent in the Saint-Remy asylum are marked by his constant use of swirls and spiral patterns. Starry Night is arguable the most famous painting he composed during the year he spent there. He also painted numerous works depicting the wheat field outside the window of his cell, many of which have been sold for exorbitant prices.

His self portraits are another major portion of his life’s work. While pics of Van Gogh are few, the single image that has been recovered, originally taken Victor Morin, was believed to be used as the basis for the dozen or more self portraits and Van Go pictures. This single stock photo of Van Gogh has been authenticated as the man’s likeness and even the portrait of Vincent with a bandaged ear is believed to be drawn from this very photo. The close up of Van Gogh portrayed in the image is the identical angle and time frame of the numerous images he painted of himself in those final years of his life.

During his lifetime, Van Gogh is said to have gone through numerous stages. His early years were spent merely understanding the basic mechanics of the paintbrush, creating still life drawings and paintings and crafting his now famous single figure black and whites. His years in Paris, eventually jaded by the impressionism exhibits and galleries of the day that saturated the city, were spent reimagining his style and in Arles he began to paint the Post-Impressionist images that led to some of his greatest masterpieces, punctuated by his time in Saint-Remy.

Vincent Van Gogh and the Use of Expressive Lines

Vincent Van Gogh utilized numerous methods to create the landscapes and portraits that define his short artistic career. Rather than painting a landscape or portrait to portray exactly what was present, Van Gogh was interested in painting what he felt as well as what he saw. The world around him was an expression of how he felt and interacted rather than a simple image to be recorded. Van Gogh’s brushstrokes, often wild and unrestrained were not messy or quick, but expressions of emotions regarding his subjects. The emotion beneath the painting was more important to him than the painting itself.

Largely because of the development of photography in the time period during which Van Gogh lived, painters were no longer commissioned to paint imagery as it actually appeared. Art became an opportunity to interpret the world around the artist instead. The technology behind paint began to grow as well. The oil colors Van Gogh used changed from 1883 and the images of cottages and peasants in earthly browns to vibrant chrome yellows during his Paris days. With the freedom to take their canvases outside and the portability of tubed paint, Van Gogh and his contemporaries were freed from the restraints of in-studio imagery.

Even in Van Gogh’s line drawings, the expressive lines of this shift could be seen. His Fritillaries, painted in Paris in 1886 while studying with the Impressionists is a great example of Vincent Van Gogh’s sketches, recreating an image of the flowers without the constraints of depicting the exact image of the flowers. After meeting with the Impressionists, whose work used lighting and short, expressive brushstrokes to recreate the effects of light reflecting off of objects, Van Gogh continued to develop his own style.

Regardless of the few studies that Van Gogh produced though, very few Van Gogh pencil and paper works remain, possibly because he rarely sketched before painting. His painting was furious and rapid, taking place before his subject and never hesitating. Van Gogh did not paint from memory, nor did he spend his time painting what he saw.

Thus, for those that that have strived to learn how to paint like Van Gogh, the process is less about technique and more about mindset. Though there are often particulars in each of his paintings, such as the use of yellows, the rapid expressive brushstrokes of his wheat fields and the swirling patterns of his Saint-Remy days, Van Gogh did not have a singular style. Instead, he utilized the diversity of the new pallete available to painters to recreate images as he felt them.

Taking for example, his painting of Olive Trees. In this painting, Van Gogh paints his tress with full, twisting and curving branches. The ground does not lie flat, but undulates like the ocean, while the sun is a blinding yellow, blazing across the sky. His brushstrokes do not convey mere color. They depict life on their own, utilizing the painter’s energy to depict his emotions.

Vincent Van Gogh – Art for Sale on the Auction Block and in the Gift Shop

Vicent Van Gogh was only able to sell a single painting during his lifetime. However, after death, the impressionistic painting of Vincent Van Gogh became some of the most celebrated and expensive paintings ever sold. Having started his painting career at the age of 27 and only finding some definition of success years later in Paris, Vincent Van Gogh’s repertoire is surprisingly deep. On the list of the most expensive paintings ever sold his rank quite high repeatedly.

There are numerous reasons for this. Foremost, he painted them recently enough that many of them are in the collections of private owners. Included in the library of contemporary art, Van Gogh’s paintings have been available to many collectors over the years. However, regardless of their relative newness compared to other worldly masterpieces, Vincent Van Gogh’s work is highly sought after and even his prints are among the most popular available.

Highest Selling Van Gogh Pieces in History

Almost all sold in the last 20 years or so; six of Vincent Van Gogh’s masterpieces have sold for more than $50 million dollars. While many of his most famous works are kept in museums such as the Hermitage in Russia, the MET in New York and the Kroller Muller in the Netherlands, still more have been made available for private purchase at auction.

Because Vince Van Gogh painted so prolifically and his work was not deemed to be the masterwork that it is now when it was originally painted, many of his paintings found their way into private collections and have thus appeared time and time again on the auction block and will likely continue to do so.

The most famous and most expensive of these sales is that of the Portrait of Dr. Gachet, sold in 1990 for $82.5 million, equivalent to $130 million today. The painting’s whereabouts are currently unknown though. Other paintings of Vince Van Gogh’s to have sold for more than $50 million include Irises sold for $53.9 million in 1987, Portrait de l’artists sans barber sold for $71.5 million in 1998, A Wheatfield with Cypresses sold for $57 million in 1993, Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers sold for £24.75 million in 1987, and Peasant Woman Against a Background of Wheat sold for $60.8 million in 1997.

Where to Buy Prints and Copies

Because of the enduring fame and popularity of his images, Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings, such as Starry Night, have become the most requested and reprinted poster and replica sales in the art industry. There are numerous places in which to find such posters and artwork. Any of the museums in which the paintings are sold you can often find and purchase such work. Around the internet, dozens of poster sellers and replica painters have produced his work again and again.

Because of the nature of Van Gogh’s work in particular, replicas of his work have circulated the art world for generations. There are numerous Viincent Van Gogh galleries dedicated to replicas and reimaginings of his work. Similar to the effect Da Vinci and Michelangelo had on their students and admirers 500 years ago, painters in the last century have flocked to Vinceent Van Gogh’s images and repainted them repeatedly. Therefore, it is common practice to find numerous reprints and copies of his work littering the art world, whether as a hobby or monetary practice, it is often hard to tell.

Vincent Van Gogh – Cafe Terrace at Night

Vincent Van Gogh painted yet one more variant of his night sky work in Café Terrace at Night, completed while in Arles in 1888. Painted using oils on a canvas of 81 x 65.5 cm, Café Terrace at Night is one of Van Gogh’s best known paintings. It bears some striking similarities to the two other Starry Night paintings, but also a few variations.

Kept today in the Kroller-Muller Museum of Otterlo, Netherlands, Café Terrace at Night represented the fusion of much of what Van Gogh learned during his time in France with what he had already developed. His time in Arles in particular and in this painting has long been cited as an example of the Impressionist shift in his work going into the last two years of his life. Merely comparing this painting with the Starry Night over the Rhone which he completed later that month, the shifts are incredibly apparent.

The stars are much smaller and less absorbed in their own light in this painting. Also, there is a bright yellow wall that draws much of the attention in the painting. While the other paintings are known to focus the attention on the stars and force the observer to move the eyes about, Café Terrace at Night gives a point for the observer to relax and focus on a single point. In contrast, the dark city on the right of the painting creates a sense of balance that does not permeate his other paintings.

The café Van Gogh used as his centerpiece in the painting still exists in Arles, though it has now been renamed to Café Van Gogh and has long been a unique setting for a painting by Van Gogh, a man who typically did not use such warm colors and careful perspective depth. Despite its comparison to the other two Starry Night paintings, Café Terrace at Night is the first painting in which he painted the night sky. The famous precursor to Starry Night, Starry Night over the Rhone was painted later in the same month.

In Van Gogh’s own words, this work was a revelation, and he described it in great detail in a letter to his sister. He described the “immense yellow lantern [illuminating] the terrace, the façade, the side walk and even [casting] light on the paving stones of the road which take a pinkish violet tone.” He spoke of how much he enjoyed painting the café terrace on the street at night rather than sketching the night sky and working on it in a studio during the day.

He describes how the conventional depiction of night is too dull, utilizing only the most basic of white lights. The colors and tones of night are too great for such a simple approach though as he said even candles were awash with amazing tones of yellow and orange. This painting represents much of what Van Gogh would later attempt with color and form.