Self-Portrait in Front of the Easel

Self-Portrait in Front of the Easel

"Here’s an impression of mine, which is the result of a portrait that I painted in the mirror, and which Theo has: a pink-grey face with green eyes, ash-coloured hair, wrinkles in forehead and around the mouth, stiffly wooden, a very red beard, quite unkempt and sad, but the lips are full, a blue smock of coarse linen, and a palette with lemon yellow, vermilion, Veronese green, cobalt blue, in short all the colours, except of the orange beard, on the palette, the only whole colours, though. The figure against a grey-white wall."
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Painting Date
15th of January 1888
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Description:

Vincent paints his own image over a dozen times during the two years he lives in Paris.  He feels a great drive toward portraiture throughout his life and must regularly use his own reflection to practice his use of color combinations of varying brushstroke thickness, shape and direction.  Vincent would rather paint live models, but he has always had trouble convincing people to sit for him under his strict conditions and meager pay.

Unfortunately, a painter who yearns to create portraiture but who drives away models with his intensity must settle for his own reflection most of the time.  This is the case with Vincent who lacks the money required to pay professional models but yearns to use colors and color combinations to reveal the true essence of his subjects.  He believes a true portrait painter can reveal things about their subject that the popular sepia or black and white photographs of the day cannot.

The multiple self-portraits Vincent creates in Paris chronicle the evolution of his painting skills as he moves from northern Dutch realism and a more earthen palette, to a post-impressionist pointillism (or divisionism), and finally to his own path forward in beyond impressionism which is ultimately followed by the Fauvists in the years following his death.

This final self-portrait from Paris is a small symphony of mostly unmixed colors which go from tube to palette to canvas in thick dabs and precise dashes.  After a Spring and Summer working with Paul Signac and Emile Bernard along the Seine in suburban Asniere Sur Seine, Vincent applies the concept of closely juxtaposed individual colors, intended to be mixed by the eye of the viewer rather than by the artist on his board then canvas.

Vincent dashes little strokes of complimentary orange across his blue painter’s smock.  The same orange is in his beard, hair and the second brush from the left in his hand holding his palette.  Vincent signs his name and the year at lower right center on the frame of the canvas on the easel with this same orange.  The background is a crosshatched patchwork of thick white strokes with light blue and lighter yellow thinner strokes accenting.

Vincent uses nearly every color and mix on his palette when he studies the reflection in his mirror.  The deep green of his eyes is echoed in strokes surrounding his nose and then placed here and there in thin dashes throughout.  His face is yellowish, giving an almost jaundiced and sickly appearance down to his pursed lips in concentration.  We know from later letters that he feels ill and spent and is ready to escape the harsh Paris winter of 1887-88 and head to the south of France, Provence, the land of sun and Cezanne and Zola…

By selecting Compare, you can see an early portrait from Paris alongside his last work from the city of light:  “Also you’ll see this when you put the portrait with the light background which I’ve just finished beside those I did of myself in Paris, that at present I look healthier than then, and even a great deal more so.  I’m even inclined to believe that the portrait will tell you better than my letter how I am, and that it will reassure you – it cost me some trouble.”

Related items include portraits of Vincent created by artist colleagues also working in Paris at the time Vincent and Theo lived and worked there.  On oil and canvas,  John Peter Russell captures Vincent’s intense stare and the energy behind those eyes turning back towards us and Henri de Toulouse Lautrec captures Vincent’s profile in pastel, very engaged in posture and conversation in a night cafe in Montmartre in 1887.  Also related are two other self portraits Vincent created, one early in Paris and one less than a year before he died from Saint Remy in Provence.

Van Gogh Museum:

Van Gogh presented himself in this self-portrait as a painter, holding a palette and paintbrushes behind his easel. He showed that he was a modern artist by using a new painting style, with bright, almost unblended colours. The palette contains the complementary colour pairs red/green, yellow/purple and blue/orange – precisely the colours Van Gogh used for this painting. He laid these pairs down side by side to intensify one another: the blue of his smock, for instance, and the orange-red of his beard.  Self-Portrait as a Painter was the last work Van Gogh produced in Paris; the city had exhausted him both mentally and physically.

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From “The Rijksmuseum: Vincent Van Gogh” by Meulenhoff and Landshoff:

“First of all I want to emphasise that, in my opinion, one and the same person can furnish material for very different portraits”

“Here is a conception of mine which is the result of a portrait which I painted in the mirror”.
This Winter of 1887-88 canvas occupies a position of its own in his final cadre of self-portraits, for it is a true work in the opinion of Vincent, more so than any other self-portrait from the Paris period, many of which can be regarded as studies. Its size alone indicates that he had set out to create something special, and this is confirmed by his signature and date in orange.

It is a portrait of Vincent, oil painter performing his craft, clad in his smock,  and armed with palette, brushes, easel and canvas. The open smock shows that he is painting with his unseen right hand, which has been transposed in the reflection from which he works.  He had used nearly the same composition for a self-portrait which dates from the beginning of his Paris period nearly two years prior.

It was almost as if he wanted to show how far he had come from the harmonious browns of the north after 18 months of brilliant color from tubes in Paris, just before leaving for the sun of Provence.  A painter with newly gained skills depicted as having paid a human price in terms of health and wellness.  Vincent was not well and he captured that in carefully selected colors. Daubed onto the palette, which he is holding rather demonstratively, are the six primary colours and white. They are arranged in complementary pairs, and he has placed them unmixed in short, thick strokes upon the canvas.

A few months later he described the picture to his sister from memory: “A pinkish-grey face with green eyes, ash coloured hair, furrowed brow, and around the mouth, stiff and wooden, a very red beard considerably disordered and mournful, but the lips are full. You will say that it looks a little like the face of, well – death, in Van Eeden’s book or some such thing – all right, but anyway that is the figure it is – and it isn’t easy to paint oneself – at is to be a little different from a photograph. And this is where I think Impressionism has an advantage over’all the rest, it is not banal, and one seeks a deeper likeness than the photographer’s.”

The literary reference is to De kleine Johannes by the Dutch author Frederik van Eeden, a novs of which Vincent had a copy. In it the character Hein ‘Magere Hein’ was the traditional personification is described as a large man with deep-set eyes, thin hands, a pale, bony forehead, and of ‘a rather ugly, peevish appearance’.

When Van Gogh left Paris he was physically exhausted and not at all well. This last self-portrait from the big city may reveal the mixed feelings which Van Gogh always had for Paris. It was a place full of misery ‘which one cannot wave away, any more than one can wave away the taint of sickness in a hospital’. At the same time, though, it was a hotbed of ideas, and had been crucial for the development of his art.  He was now deserting Paris for sunnier regions, ‘but one always leaves a considerable part of one’s life there’.

In what may be his last self portrait in Paris, we can see Vincent’s comfort with the impressionist color palette is becoming complete.  Textures and crosshatched strokes are clearly visible in the background with hints of prussian blue reflecting off this smock upon the white grey.  The artist’s lips are pursed in concentration and the eyes are intense and black-blue with perhaps a hint of strain or a tiredness to them.  Carefully textured oranges and greens separate face from shadow with the bright cadmium orange vertical strokes of his beard drawing us to the same brilliant orange on his painter’s palette and repeated in his signature and date.

 

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In June, after Vincent has moved to Arles, he writes his sister Wil and talks about this last self portrait from Paris, maybe his last work created there:

 

“Since I’m now so occupied with myself, I’d also like to see if I can’t make my own portrait in writing. First I start by saying that to my mind the same person supplies material for very diverse portraits.

 

Here’s an impression of mine, which is the result of a portrait that I painted in the mirror, and which Theo has: a pink-grey face with green eyes, ash-coloured hair, wrinkles in forehead and around the mouth, stiffly wooden, a very red beard, quite unkempt and sad, but the lips are full, a blue smock of coarse linen, and a palette with lemon yellow, vermilion, Veronese green, cobalt blue, in short all the colours, except of the orange beard, on the palette, the only whole colours, though. The figure against a grey-white wall. You’ll say that this is something like, say, the face of — death — in Van Eeden’s book or some such thing – very well, but anyway isn’t a figure like this — and it isn’t easy to paint oneself — in any event something different from a photograph? And you see — this is what Impressionism has — to my mind — over the rest, it isn’t banal, and one seeks a deeper likeness than that of the photographer.

 

I look different nowadays, in so far as I no longer have either hair or beard, both being always shaved off close; further, my complexion has changed from green-grey pink to grey-orange, and I have a white suit instead of a blue one, and am always dusty, always more laden like a porcupine with sticks, easel, canvas, and other merchandise. Only the green eyes have remained the same, but another colour in the portrait, naturally, is a yellow straw hat like a grass-mower — and a very black pipe.

 

I live in a little yellow house with green door and shutters, whitewashed inside — on the white walls — very brightly coloured Japanese drawings — red tiles on the floor — the house in the full sun — and a bright blue sky above it and — the shadow in the middle of the day much shorter than at home. Anyway — but can’t you understand that one can paint something like that with a few strokes, but at the same time can’t you understand that some people say ‘it looks too strange’, not to mention the ones who find it nothing or abominable? If it just looks like it, but looks different from the work of the pious photographer with his black shadows — it should be done for that reason alone.

 

I really don’t like Mr Vosmaer at all, and am callous enough not to care much about the man’s exchange of the temporary for the eternal. It’s a very good thing that you and Ma have acquired a garden, with cats, tomcats, sparrows and flies, rather than have an extra flight of stairs. I could never get used to climbing the stairs in Paris, and was always dizzy in a dreadful nightmare that has left me here, but recurred regularly there.

 

Were I not to put this letter in the post I would certainly tear it up if I read it over first — so I won’t read it over and I doubt the legibility, I don’t always have time to write.  I don’t think there’s anything in this letter and can’t understand how I managed to make it so long. Thank Ma for her letter.  A long time ago I meant you to have a painted study, and you shall get it. I’m afraid that by post, even if I pay the postage, they’ll make you pay excess postage, like the flowers from Menton, and this is even bigger — but Theo will certainly send you one, if I don’t think about it, ask him for it.

 

Embracing you and Ma in thought.

 

Your loving Vincent”

 

“Theo works for all the Impressionists, he’s done something for and sold for all of them, and will certainly go on doing so. But just these few things that I write to you about the matter will show you how he’s something very different from the run of dealers, who care nothing for the painters.
Was there enough postage on the drawing? Write and tell me that, because I ought to know.”

 

To Willemien van Gogh. Arles, between Saturday, 16 and Wednesday, 20 June 1888

 

 

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Another year later, from the asylum of Saint Paul de Mausole in Saint Remy de Provence he writes his brother of this last Paris portrait:

“At the moment my mind is functioning regularly and I feel absolutely normal – and if I think rationally at present about my condition with the hope of having in general between the crises – if, unfortunately, it’s to be feared that this will always recur from time to time – of having periods of clarity and work between times – if I think rationally at present about my condition then certainly I tell myself that I mustn’t have the idée fixe of being ill. But that I must continue my little career as a painter firmly. To remain for good in an asylum from now on would probably be exaggerating things.

 

I was reading in Le Figaro a few days ago a story of a Russian writer who lived with a nervous illness from which he, moreover, sadly died, which caused him terrible attacks from time to time.  And what can one do, there’s no remedy, or if there is it’s to work passionately. I dwell on that more than I should. And all in all I prefer to have a proper illness like this than to be as I was in Paris when it was brewing.

 

Also you’ll see this when you put the portrait with the light background which I’ve just finished beside those I did of myself in Paris, that at present I look healthier than then, and even a great deal more so.  I’m even inclined to believe that the portrait will tell you better than my letter how I am, and that it will reassure you – it cost me some trouble.”

 

To Theo van Gogh. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Thursday, 5 and Friday, 6 September 1889

Painting, Oil on Canvas
Paris: early, 1888
Van Gogh Museum
Amsterdam, The Netherlands, Europe
F: 522, JH: 1356

Where Vincent Was:
Paris

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