Portrait of the Artist’s Mother

Portrait of the Artist’s Mother

“I am doing a portrait of Mother for myself. I cannot stand the colorless photograph, and I am trying to do one in a harmony of color, as I see her in my memory.”
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Painting Date
10th of October 1888
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Portraiture is perhaps as important to Vincent as his beloved landscapes.  As Vincent pursues a path of bright color combinations and variations in brushstroke width and shape, he seeks to create emotions beyond the scene in front of him but very much rooted in it.  In related items, also shown is a self portrait in which Vincent portrays himself as a Japanese monk or “bonze”. It is similar in its green background and the timing of the execution of the painting, about a month before his portrait of his mother. In portraiture, he is attempting to capture not the image of the person in front of him, but rather the essence of whom that person is.  More of an iconic representation rather than a precise rendition is his goal.


Vincent writes his sister Willemien in September of 1888 and asks her to send him a photograph of their mother while he is away in Arles.  The photograph arrives in October and an excited Vincent begins a labor of love and color creating a portrait from the photograph.  He has been corresponding with Emile Bernard and Paul Gauguin as they work in Pont Aven on the beginnings of symbolism and their efforts to paint from memory rather than the view in front of them.  Vincent will try this technique during the late fall of 1888 and decide it is not the path to modernism he wants to follow.


In this loving portrait of his mother, Vincent uses cool greens and blues for his palette and then mixes in shades of white and soft yellows as the light strikes his mother’s hair and cheeks.  He creates a background of crosshatched and broad brushstrokes in teal and repeats this same shade of green in the flowers of her bonnet and in her graying blonde hair.  Her eyes flash with intensity at the observer and, much like Vincent’s own eyes in portraits, almost pierce the viewer in the energy behind the gaze of deep green.


By September, Vincent knows Gauguin has agreed to come live with him in the Yellow House on Place Lamartine in Arles and should arrive in a matter of weeks. Vincent is filled with optimism that his artists’ studio/commune of the south is beginning to materialize.  Unfortunately, Gauguin will leave before the new year arrives and after only two months of living and working with Vincent in Arles, the artists will part company.


You can view this powerful portrait of Vincent’s mother, Anna Carbentus Van Gogh, in Pasadena, California at the Norton Simon Museum.




Vincent writes his sister in mid September:


“You’ll see now that by regularly looking at Japanese prints you’ll enjoy making bouquets even more, working among flowers. I must finish this letter if I want it to go off today.
I’ll be very happy to have the photograph of our mother that you mention, so don’t forget to send it to me. Give my warm regards to our mother; I often think of you both, and I’m really pleased that now you know our life a little better.
I really fear that Theo will find himself too lonely. But one of these days there’ll be a Belgian Impressionist painter, the one I mentioned above, who’ll come to spend some time in Paris. And there’ll be many other painters who’ll soon come back to Paris with their studies done during the summer.  I kiss you affectionately, and Mother too.
Ever yours,

To Willemien van Gogh. Arles, Sunday, 9 and about Friday, 14 September 1888




“I’m writing to you in haste; I’m working on a portrait.   That’s to say, I’m doing a portrait of our mother for myself. I can’t look at the colourless photograph, and I’m trying to do one with harmonious colour, as I see her in my memory. I shake your hand firmly.
Ever yours,


To Theo. Arles, Monday, 8 October 1888


“We’re sparing nothing of what we have, in order to obtain some rich effect of colour. And I believe that the idea of earning something as much for the pals as for ourselves will give us confidence. And in our business dealings, although we have no fixed plan, everything we do will nevertheless be based on that deep sense that we have of the present injustice suffered by the artists whom we know, and of the desire to change it as far as we can. With that idea, we can work with calmness and determination, and in short, we have nothing to fear from anyone.
I’m working on a portrait of our mother because the black photograph was making me too impatient.  Ah, what portraits we could make from life with photography and painting! I always have hopes that a great revolution still awaits us in portraiture.  I’m writing home to have our father’s portrait too. Myself, I don’t want black photographs, and yet I still want to have a portrait. The one of our mother, a no. 8 canvas, will be ashy, on a green background, and her clothes carmine. I don’t know if it will be a good resemblance, but I want an impression of blond colouring, at least.
You’ll see it one day, and if you like I’ll do one for you too. It will be in heavy impasto again.  Ah well, my dear Theo, for your next letter, let me have it on Sunday.  Things will go well, I dare believe, because we’re on the point of selling all the same, and what I’m preparing now will put us in a position to show something at the time of the exhibition. It will be a year of hard work, but we’ll have good times afterwards, and even in the meantime.”

To Theo. Arles, Tuesday, 9 or Wednesday, 10 October 1888


Painting, Oil on Canvas
Arles: October 10, 1888
Norton Simon Museum
Pasadena, California, United States of America, North America
F: 477, JH: 1600

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