Prior to leaving the Netherlands for Paris in February 1886, Vincent van Gogh
had rendered the harsh beauty of peasant life in images such as The Potato Eaters (1885; Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum), the great work of his early Realist phase. However, sudden exposure to French avant-garde painting prompted him to rethink his artistic means. Rejecting the bleak palette and crude forms he had employed in his previous paintings, van Gogh set about assimilating the art of the Impressionists, notably their broken brushwork and vibrant use of color. Simultaneously, he came to terms with the quasi-scientific method of Georges Seurat, whose Sunday on La Grande Jatte—1884 he discovered at the final Impressionist exhibition, which opened a few months after his arrival in the capital. In 1888 van Gogh went to Arles, where he devised a highly personal style characterized by decorative clarity, expressive drawing, and violent chromatic contrasts. But it was during his two-year Paris sojourn that he laid the foundation for the achievement of his final years.
In this transitional period, van Gogh—who had never before executed a self-portrait—produced at least twenty-four images of himself, in which we can measure his adaptation of new ideas to his own expressive ends. The format of the Art Institute’s example evokes traditional conventions of the genre, but the technique is thoroughly modern. The face is rendered in brusque strokes of bright color, and the coat and background are a vibrating flux of dots and dashes. Juxtaposing complementary colors, for example red and green (in the beard, as well as the background), van Gogh demonstrated his awareness of Neo-Impressionist practice. He would soon abandon Pointillist handling, but Seurat’s poetic notion of a "harmony of contrasts" would continue to haunt his imagination.
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