Skull with Burning Cigarette

Skull with Burning Cigarette

"What the doctor tells me is that I absolutely must live better, and that I have to take more care of myself with my work until I’m stronger. It’s total debilitation. Well I’ve made it worse by smoking a lot, which I did all the more because then one isn’t troubled by one’s empty stomach."
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Painting Date
29th of January 1886
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In his early thirties, Vincent paints this portrait of a skull with a cigarette sometime in January or February of 1886 while he is living in Antwerp and attending the prestigious Antwerp Royal Academy of Fine Arts.  At the academy, Vincent will draw and paint from plaster casts and skeletons and occasionally from live models posing in the studio-classroom.  He is not well received by his instructors nor his younger fellow students and withdraws into silence when his classmates mocking and teasing is more than he can bear.

Vincent and Theo are struggling as Vincent wants to stay in Antwerp and Theo fears his brother is deteriorating in the big port city and does not think wise his brother’s ongoing practice of hiring prostitutes as live models with part of his monthly allotment.  Vincent’s health is failing as he is being treated for syphilis in addition to gonorrhea (unbeknownst to Theo or any family members)  with the common prescription of the day being regular doses of mercury.  Vincent has sores covering his throat and mouth which make it difficult for him to eat and he begins loosing weight and his teeth start cracking and breaking off.  He has a dozen of the worst pulled as a result and is in discomfort after his recovery and for the first time in his life, lacking energy.  He is, in a word, depressed.

Though we cannot know for sure because Vincent does not mention this canvas in any of his letters, scholars point to art students commonly drawing satirical paintings as a form of healthy rebellious behavior and an application of their newly acquired skills.  Others point to the skull and its cigarette being Vincent’s despondent first “self portrait” as he contemplates his own deteriorated appearance and the skeleton in front of him in the art studio.

Theo suggests Vincent should head home to Nuenen and help their mother and sister move to the nearby small town in the Netherlands, Breda — but Vincent will instead decide to abruptly leave Antwerp to join his surprised brother in Paris.  Theo will be made aware of Vincent’s arrival when he receives a hand delivered note in  Vincent’s pen letting him know he is in Paris and will wait in the Louvre for Theo to join him.

This work is probably one of his last before leaving Antwerp and the Royal Academy of Fine Arts for Paris and the Cormon Atelier to continue his studies.  Vincent will finally see and feel the colors and lighting of the impressionists who are gaining popularity and a following in the City of Light and beyond.  “Skull with Burning Cigarette” was kept by Theo and Jo at the time of Theo’s death in 1891.  Jo kept it until her death in 1925, when their son Vincent Willem Van Gogh, who founded the Van Gogh Museum, placed it on exhibit for all to see upon the opening of the museum.

Related items are a drawing done around the same time of a Hanging Skeleton and Cat as well as a frontal view  and side view  of a skull completed about three months after arriving in Paris at Cormon’s school.



Vincent writes his brother Theo in early February of 1886 from Antwerp, just after enrolling in the drawing class at the academy…


My dear Theo,


I already wrote to you the day before yesterday that on the one hand I was far from well, but that on the other hand I nevertheless thought I could see some light.
 However, I regret that I have to tell you even more categorically that I’m most definitely literally exhausted and overworked. When you think that I went to live in my own studio on 1 May — since then it’s perhaps been a matter of 6 or 7 times, so far, that I’ve had my midday meal. For good reasons, I don’t want you to tell Ma that I’m not well — because she might possibly consider that it wasn’t nice that what happened, happened, that’s to say that I didn’t stay there — precisely because of these consequences. I shan’t say anything about it; don’t you say anything either. But I lived then, and since then, here, having nothing for my food because the work cost me too much and I relied too much on the idea that I could stick it out like this.


What the doctor tells me is that I absolutely must live better, and that I have to take more care of myself with my work until I’m stronger. 

 It’s total debilitation. Well I’ve made it worse by smoking a lot, which I did all the more because then one isn’t troubled by one’s empty stomach.


Anyway, they say — one has to experience lean times, and I’ve had my share of them.  Because it’s not just the food, it’s also all the worry and sorrow that one has.
 You know that for one reason or another the time in Nuenen was far from carefree for me. What’s more — here — I’m very pleased to have come here — but it’s been a difficult time all the same.


What we have to do and what is largely lacking — is this. Paying the models ourselves is too much; as long as one doesn’t have enough money, one must take advantage of the opportunities at the studios, like Verlat, like Cormon. And one must be in the artists’ world and work at clubs where one shares the cost of the models.


Now it’s true that I didn’t think of this before, or at least didn’t do it — but I wish now that I’d started on it a year earlier. If we could now find some way of living in the same city it would be far and away the best thing, at least for the time being.


To Theo. Antwerp, on or about Thursday, 4 February 1886


I do realize that you don’t agree with me about coming straight to Paris, otherwise you would already have answered me. And all the same, it’s better that it should happen immediately — I have the opportunity here to consult fellows about it who do really good work, and I’m entirely convinced that this would be the best.
For that matter, it could have happened sooner. Things have been too bad recently and I was too hard up. And so we must put our backs into it.

Don’t worry about it too much, because we won’t fail.

But what I tell you is true — from the time I send this letter off until I receive your reply, which I hope will cross this, I have nothing and it’s fasting time again.

Anyway — we’ll hope that we’ll be together in a while — and that the worst will be over.

Regards, with a handshake.


Yours truly,


I’ve just read Dumas’s Dame aux camelias, it’s very good — do you know it?


I don’t trust the people where I live; if you send a letter with money, as you did recently, it’s safer just to register it for that reason.


To Theo. Antwerp, Thursday, 18 February 1886


I’d be happy to stay if the course at the academy were continuing.

But unfortunately there’s nothing there until May except for the competitions and the day class for plaster casts, and those are coming to an end too.

And I’ve certainly not seen Antwerp at its best now, for from what one generally hears it’s usually much livelier still, and now there are two crises depressing it at the same time — firstly the general one, and then on top of that the aftermath of the exhibition, too, in the shape of numerous fraudulent or common bankruptcies.

Think carefully about whether we couldn’t find a combination that would make it possible for me to be in Paris before June. I’d like it so much, because I believe that it would be better for so many reasons, which I’ve already told you.

To which I may also add that it seems to me that we could discuss taking a studio by June so much better if we were both already in Paris beforehand and could size up the pros and cons of the situation. Anyway. Write to me again soon, with a handshake.


Yours truly,


To Theo. Antwerp, on or about Wednesday, 24 February 1886




My dear Theo,

Don’t be cross with me that I’ve come all of a sudden. I’ve thought about it so much and I think we’ll save time this way. Will be at the Louvre from midday, or earlier if you like. A reply, please, to let me know when you could come to the Salle Carrée.  As for expenses, I repeat, it comes to the same thing. I have some money left, that goes without saying, and I want to talk to you before spending anything. We’ll sort things out, you’ll see. So get there as soon as possible. I shake your hand.

Yours truly,



To Theo. Paris, on or about Sunday, 28 February 1886

Painting, Oil on Canvas – 32.3 cm x 24.8 cm
Antwerp: January-February 1886
Van Gogh Museum
Amsterdam, The Netherlands, Europe
F: 212, JH: 999

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