The Netherlands 1853 – France 1890
Portrait of the artist
[Portrait de l'artiste] 1887
oil on canvas
canvas 44.1 (h) x 35.1 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Gift of Jacques Laroche 1947
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Gérard Blot
Vincent van Gogh arrived in Paris in late February 1886, landing suddenly on his brother Theo by means of a hand-delivered message asking to meet at the Musée du Louvre. He knew almost nothing of contemporary art, having spent his earlier months in Paris in 1875–76 working as an art dealer and looking at Old Master paintings. He was suspicious of the brightly coloured Impressionist manner of painting which had taken over Paris in the 1880s. He enrolled at Cormon’s studio, where he encountered Toulouse-Lautrec and the Australian John Russell, who both painted his portrait. Theo organised exhibitions of work by Monet and Pissarro, through which Vincent became familiar with the mature style of Impressionism. It was the explosion of Seurat’s example, possibly the exhibition of his A Sunday afternoon on the island of La Grande Jatte 18861 (works 13 and 14) at the Société des Artistes Indépendants that summer, which convinced Vincent of the expressive possibilities of colour in art.
The artist interrogates himself, and us, in a conventional head-and-shoulders view of his reflection. Painting oneself in a mirror had a lengthy art-historical tradition, from the Renaissance to Rembrandt, as well as contemporary examples. But it was not mere external appearances that van Gogh wished to convey; as he wrote to his sister around 22 June 1888, ‘one seeks after a deeper resemblance than the photographer’s’.2 Although never a doctrinaire Neo-Impressionist, nor a follower of Seurat’s theory of Luminism, van Gogh experimented with the idea that colour opposites—red/green, yellow/purple, blue/orange—produced brilliant effects when juxtaposed without the mediation of middle tones. He had earlier written to Theo: ‘One finds the same thing in, say, portraits by Rembrandt. It is more than nature, something of a revelation.’3
Like a glowing sun in the dark blue heavens, van Gogh’s golden head dominates the canvas. All life and energy emanates outwards from his face, stroked across his features and continuing into his leonine hair and darker orange beard. Blue circles for eyes and blue strokes through the flesh provide the necessary complementaries. A slashing band of white collar allows a separation from the planes of blue jacket and vest, modelled by contrasting bright and pale orange stripes and set off against a light blue cravat. The darker blue background is flatter, made by complex strokes of cross-hatching. Van Gogh painted and drew himself more than forty times in his short life as an artist. This self-portrait is one of the most considered views of the art student, painting himself as an example of the current aesthetic theory, yet adding that element of searching enquiry into self which he had absorbed from Rembrandt's example.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay exhibition book, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009