Portrait of the Artist
Van Gogh. Self-Portraits, The Courtauld Gallery, 3 February-8 May 2022
In January 1889, a week or so after Vincent van Gogh returned from a fortnight in hospital to his rented house in Arles, in the south of France, he painted a self-portrait. The artist depicts himself in the studio he set up on the ground floor of his temporary lodgings, with a creamy, almost- blank canvas propped up on an easel behind him, and a colourful Japanese woodblock print tacked to the wall. He wears a heavy green coat and a blue cap trimmed with fur. A thick white bandage covers his left ear. The incident that landed the artist in hospital is as talked about as his art.
Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (1889) is the centrepiece of a small but striking new show at the Courtauld Gallery in London, the first dedicated to self-portraits from every stage of the mostly self-taught Dutch artist’s career. The institution had been thinking about creating an exhibition around this painting for a while – as it has done with other masterpieces in its collection – and a longer lead time due to the gallery’s refurbishment and the pandemic has made it possible to bring together a dazzling array of loans from around the world.
Enter the exhibition and you might feel as if you’ve walked in on a conversation. Sixteen of the thirty-five surviving self-portraits painted in Van Gogh’s final four years, beginning when he was thirty-three, are hung at the same height across two rooms. Most present him in three-quarter view with the same recognisable features: angular cheekbones, permanent frown, deep-set piercing green eyes, ginger hair, russet beard. Yet the shifting style and purpose of each piece supports the artist’s claim that ‘the same person supplies material for very diverse portraits’.
As far as we know, Van Gogh only began producing self-portraits after moving in with his art dealer brother, Theo, in Paris in February 1886; by then, he’d been painting other people for six years. The first work on show from 1886, Self-Portrait with Felt Hat, sees him moving away from the academic style and dark tones he’d grown up with in his native Netherlands. Inspired by avant-garde artists such as Émile Bernard and Paul Signac, with whom he rubbed shoulders in the French capital, he began to experiment with light, which in this case bathes one side of his face. On the other side are shadows composed of pink and green. The artist’s pale blue cravat contrasts with his ruddy beard.
In the following year, Van Gogh’s most prolific for self-portraiture, he produced more than half of the works on display, each painted swiftly and in a different style but depicting the artist wearing the same white shirt, blue cravat, and brown jacket with navy trim. Using his features to experiment with Impressionist and pointillist techniques, he loosened his brushstrokes and brightened his palette. He rendered his fiery hair with lively dashes of paint and blanched his jacket with flecks of lilac. Pastel blues and greens abound, and daubs of pastel pink and red line his nose and lips. He drew inspiration from nature and books on colour theory.
‘We hope that showing works of the same motif will allow you to trace his evolution as an artist more clearly,’ says Karen Serres, curator of paintings at The Courtauld. ‘You can see the similarities of course – it’s the same person – but it also teaches you a lot about what he was looking at and focusing on.’
Often the Van Gogh before us is a well-dressed, bourgeois Parisian – his clothes a sartorial hangover from his days as a dealer. There are also instances when his appearance is less art world, more artist. In the summer of 1887, he painted seven self-portraits on the reverse of canvases, the majority showing him in a workman’s blue smock. Together with other examples that feature a wide-brimmed straw hat – which he wore while making art outdoors, a shelter from the sun – these introduce us to Van Gogh the working painter.
In the months leading up to his move from Paris to the sun-baked south, Van Gogh became more ambitious, producing increasingly experimental and elaborate self-portraits that push the boundaries of representational art. In Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat (1887), short, sharp strokes radiate out from his nose, and luminous orange dashes swirl around his head like some sort of halo. Another canvas from the same year bristles with bold strokes: red around the artist’s ear and nose; blue under his eyes; and pink and orange on his waistcoat and navy jacket.
Van Gogh believed that it’s difficult to know oneself. But, as he wrote in a letter to Theo, ‘It’s not easy to paint oneself either’. And yet, the last painting he made before leaving Paris is a statement of his growing confidence. Self-portrait as a Painter (1887-88) shows the artist at work on a canvas, a fistful of brushes in his hand. The daubs of paint on his palette match those of the portrait, which is boldly signed and dated in red. Unlike the other Parisian pictures, which he completed in a single sitting, this work took several weeks.
Van Gogh hung Self-portrait as Painter in Theo’s flat in the hope that it would be seen and admired by his brother’s many guests; it was an advertisement. But he had a variety of reasons other than self-promotion for painting these portraits. Some are a form of experimentation, others an act of self-scrutiny and a way to understand himself. At times he wanted to practise from the figure and simply didn’t have access to a model.
The Courtauld seeks to dispel the notion that these are merely outpourings of emotion. Instead, it presents each work as a physical object and pays attention to how it was created and its technical merits. ‘Whenever I’ve spoken about the self-portrait in our collection, and had to tell the backstory of why he has a bandage, I’ve felt that it overshadows the art itself,’ says Serres. ‘I hope the exhibition moves us away from the biography and this fascination with the tortured artist, and indeed challenges it.’
But how to divorce the man from the art when you’re standing in front of Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear? (For anyone who doesn’t know the sorry tale, Van Gogh sliced through his own ear with a razor after a row with his friend and fellow artist, Paul Gauguin, with whom he was sharing a house in Arles.) This is the only portrait on display to have a recognisable setting, which could be read as a symptom of the artist’s fragile mental state – his need for stability, his dependence on crutch-like props. Or, as the exhibition catalogue suggests, it could be a reaffirmation of his commitment to direct observation in contrast with Gauguin’s belief that art should come from the imagination.
It wasn’t the only time Van Gogh turned to his features after a manic episode. Following several relapses in the spring of 1889, he left Arles and voluntarily checked himself into the Saint-Paul de Mausole psychiatric hospital on the outskirts of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. He stayed for a year, and while suffering mental health crises he painted unsettling self- portraits. In one, the artist is almost consumed by a sickly shade of muddy green; his eyes are dull, his hair matted, the paint applied in places with a palette knife. In another, the shades are more crystalline and nuanced, the strokes fluid. As he wrote in a letter to his brother, ‘If I recover sooner or later, up to a certain point it’ll be because I’ve cured myself by working, which fortifies the will and consequently allows these mental weaknesses less hold.’
The show ends with two canvases that aren’t strictly self-portraits, but that played an important role in shaping Van Gogh’s identity and practice as an artist. Painted against a fairy-tale starry sky, Portrait of Eugène Boch (1888) is about more than capturing the likeness of his Belgian painter friend. It’s a projection of Van Gogh’s artistic ideals. The still life he painted a couple of months later, of a rustic wooden chair with a straw seat in his studio in Arles, reflects his humble way of life and modest family background. When he revisited the painting in January 1889, he added a few personal touches: his signature on a box of onions, his beloved pipe, a tobacco pouch. Smoking helped him to relax.
Van Gogh’s Chair (1888-89) says nearly as much about the artist as his more conventional self-portraits, which were for him an opportunity to experiment with colour and brushwork, and try out different personas rather than capture a faithful likeness. While the portraits produced on small supports in single settings in Paris were primarily experiments, those he made in Provence were fewer but more complex, each intended for a particular recipient. Just one shows the artist facing the viewer straight on, emphasising his gaunt cheeks, hollowed by missing teeth. Half show him as an elegant gentleman, half as a working artist.
Van Gogh’s compelling biography began to take over soon after he killed himself, aged thirty-seven, and ever since it has threatened to obliterate all else. In 1893 the French writer and art critic Camille Mauclair described his paintings as ‘testimonies of himself ’ and his Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe (1889) as ‘a confession […] one is no longer able to see that it is a very beautiful thing’. His paintings became peepshow windows onto his life, voyeuristic lenses through which we project romantic ideas about genius and passion and artistic struggle. ‘You don’t even look at the art anymore, you just read the biography through it,’ says Serres. ‘By doing this show, we hope to put the focus back on the works themselves.’
Those works introduce us to an artist who was driven and innovative, an artist who painted with passion, yes, but also with clarity. Rather than emotional outbursts, his self-portraits were carefully considered and purposeful, intended to broadcast his creative identity or to shore up his sense of self. Together they tell us as much about his artistic progression as his psychological deterioration. They are Van Gogh’s many selves in conversation.
Vincent Van Gogh. Self-Portraits is on at the Courtauld Gallery until 8 May. For more information and to book tickets, visit the Courtauld Gallery.
Chloë Ashby is an author and arts journalist. Since graduating from the Courtauld Institute of Art, she has written for The Times Literary Supplement, The Guardian, FT Life & Arts, frieze and others. Her debut novel, Wet Paint, is published by Trapeze in April 2022.
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