Interpretive Resource

Introduction: Van Gogh's Self Portrait

An explanation of the artist's use of color and brushstroke in his intense, introspective self-portrait.

Van Gogh and Gauguin
Art Institute of Chicago, Museum Education Department: Student and Teacher Programs. Van Gogh and Gauguin, 2001, p. 11-12.

Prior to moving to Arles, van Gogh lived with his brother Theo in Paris for two years (March 1886–February 1888). Using himself as a readily available model, van Gogh followed in the footsteps of many other artists (Albrecht Dürer [1471–1528], Rembrandt van Rijn [1606–1669], and Gustave Courbet [1819–1877], to name a few) and took a probing look at himself through his painting. Artists use self-portrayal for many reasons; for some, it is a means of studying character, for others, a demonstration of both technical and social status. Van Gogh produced at least 24 self-portraits during this two-year period. They range from images of an uncertain artist portrayed in dark, somber colors, to brightly colored portrayals of confidence, to representations of ideas.

Although using the traditional portrait bust format, this intense, introspective image conveys a thoroughly modern spirit; it is van Gogh’s most methodical application of the Neo-Impressionist style; utilizing techniques practiced by Georges Seurat and Paul Signac. Van Gogh’s use of color in this self-portrait reflects his keen awareness of the Neo-Impressionist practice of juxtaposing complementary colors in order to create a more vibrant effect. Van Gogh, however, rejected Seurat’s and Signac’s uniform Pointillist style and applied the paint in marks of varying size and direction depending on the object depicted. Here, smooth, layered directional strokes define the planes of his face and texture of his hair and beard in a circular pattern while short, choppy strokes unite the clothing and background.

The artist established red-green as the dominant color contrast throughout the painting, seen in his beard and hair (where green and rust-colored strokes are laid down side by side), his eyes (painted green, surrounded by reddish touches delineating the eyelids), and the background (where greens and blues are accented by dabs of orange-red). More muted is the deep violet and gold contrast apparent in his jacket. Finally, the artist plays off the orange strokes of his beard with the light blue of his tie. By subordinating these secondary contrasts to the dominant red-green pair, the portrait retains an overall color harmony.

This self-portrait exhibits van Gogh’s belief that form and meaning can be conveyed through juxtaposing bright colors. Thus, it made sense that when he decided to leave Paris the artist chose Arles as his destination, since its warm climate and brilliant light continually inflect nature’s colors. He readily associated color in nature with color in art as he wrote Theo in the spring of 1888: This country seems to me as beautiful as Japan as far as….the gay color effects are concerned. Water forms patches of a beautiful emerald or a rich blue in the landscape, just as we see it in the crépons. The sunsets have a pale orange color which makes the fields appear blue. The sun a splendid yellow. And all this though I have not seen the country yet in its usual summer splendor.

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