Art has been around since primitive times, people painted on walls to tell tales of the hunt, and to relay their beliefs. Since then art has developed into a way of expressing emotions such as pain, love, wonder, etc. Among some of the greatest artists to ever live is Vincent van Gogh, arguably the best Dutch painter to come after Rembrand, although he remained unappreciated and widely unknown during his lifetime. Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait is the painting I will be focusing on. It is an 1889 oil on canvas painting by the post impressionist artist. Van Gogh, who was for the most part self-taught, (although admittedly influenced by Jean Francois Millet and Barbizon School artists) completed his self-portrait in Musee d’Orsay in Paris, France, shortly before he left Saint-Remy-de-Provence in southern France. The idea behind these portraits, (of which Van Gogh produced many) came from a lack of funds, van Gogh lacked the capital to pay for models, so he had to settle for himself. Van Gogh intended for his self-portraits to be appreciated by the art society of his time, he even sent it to his brother who was an art dealer stating that “you will need to study the picture for a time, I hope you will notice that my facial expressions have become much calmer, although my eyes have the same insecure look as before, or so it appears to me.” This conveys the artist’s inner turmoil over his self-image which was a common complaint with his self-portraits; art historians of the day stated that it was not a pretty pose and the turbulent colors and patterns were too revealing of the artist’s emotional state. There are a lot of things to consider when analyzing any type of artwork, the first thing is that you always need to remember that you’re probably wrong. We have no way of knowing what the artist was trying to convey when he was painting, in this case van Gogh could have been simply painting a self-portrait, end of story. There might not be any deeper meaning behind it then that, or it could be that he was in anguish knowing that he was losing his mind and knowing that his artwork was unappreciated by everyone of importance in the art community.
Art is all about interpretation and everyone has their own interpretations, that is what makes art so unique and individual. Sometimes its not always about the painting itself but what the painting makes you feel. Does van Gogh’s self-portrait resonate with anyone? Probably. Since the beginning of time people have wanted a way to convey meaning and art provides a way to do so. At first glance, on the surface van Gogh’s self-portrait doesn’t look like anything special. There is very limited use of color making van Gogh’s image hard to distinguish from the background. And van Gogh himself looks dour and as he himself described in the note to his brother ‘insecure.’ The image itself starts in the right-hand corner and almost appears to expand outward. As it was previously mentioned that there is very limited color used in the painting, those colors are blue, white, and carrot orange, the carrot orange providing the only striking and eye-drawing part of the painting. It is hard to say whether the blue represents the color of the sky in the background of the painting, it doesn’t look like a sky with all the swirls. Van Gogh’s suit is also the same shade of blue, making it hard to say when his suit ends, and the background begins. His eyes are also blue, but his hair and beard add a splash of color as an astounding carrot orange. It is important to note that van Gogh does not have his ear bandaged in this painting although if the timeline is correct, this painting was completed after the accident in which van Gogh accidentally chopped off a part of his own ear. It could be that van Gogh was ashamed of this incident and did not want it forever commemorated in his artwork, but that is completely left up to speculation.
Van Gogh had already pointed out to the critics the insecurity in his eyes, but what is it about the eyes that he was able to convey this insecurity? Upon closer examination I determined that it was in the almost indistinguishable squinting of the eyes and the slight furrowing of the brow that gave the viewer the sense that the man in the painting was insecure. Something else I noticed as I took a more in-depth look at the painting was the self isolation that van Gogh sentenced himself to within the painting. There are no objects or props, the self-portrait is only shown from the waist up so the viewer is left with no other choice but to focus solely on the image at hand. The viewer can’t even determine where the image is taking place, whether it is in doors or outdoors, or what season it is. The background is entirely blue, but not really the blue of the sky, it’s a swirling pattern of blue that gives no hint as to whether this is supposed to be the painter’s interpretation of the sky or any number of things. It is important to note that van Gogh was renowned for his use of color as a symbol of expression. This would explain why he only used three colors in his self-portrait, the majority color being blue. The use of blue leads the viewer to wonder what the artist was feeling at the time he was painting this self-portrait. Blue is commonly thought of as a calming color, tranquil even, but it is also said to be cold and depressing. Shortly after the completion of his self-portrait, van Gogh began his descent into madness and was institutionalized where he died shortly thereafter.
The insecurity in his eyes and the color blue could have been van Gogh’s acknowledgment and struggle against the madness threatening to overtake him before he could complete his work. Van Gogh was a vastly underappreciated brilliant artist of his time who struggled with the passion and zealousness that makes his artwork so unique. It is said that he paved the way for modern art with his short, frenzied brushstrokes so evident in his paintings. The majority of his artwork was produced in a mere three years after getting a late start in the art world, and he went mad shortly after. For a man with no formal art training and with such a late start, it is quite incredible that he could develop such an exceptional technique, but who knows, it could have been out of sheer necessity that van Gogh developed his technique. It could have been that he could feel himself losing touch with reality, and the quick strokes were just his way of getting his work on the paper and out into the world before he lost his mind all together and could no longer create happiness by bringing beautiful works of art into the world. For a man that suffered so much disappointment throughout his personal life and career, he never wavered in his desire to bring his pieces to life. There’s a vulnerability in his paintings that appeals to a person and maybe it was those disappointments that taught him to put his vulnerability into his paintings.
Art truly is in the eye of the beholder. I see a sad man in this picture, but some people see expression in the use of colors, and a story in the image’s eyes. I can appreciate art, but I don’t know that I will ever be able to understand it. There is so much that the artist could have meant, and people could have the interpretation of it all wrong and they would never know. There’s an uncertainty in art that maybe van Gogh realized. He never got to see himself as a success, he was forever doubting his abilities because the people of his time didn’t understand the brilliance behind his artwork. Maybe the uncertainty was what drove him crazy, or maybe you have to be a little crazy in the first place to be able to create a lasting impression on the world through something you created. People have studied this painting for hours upon hours, people who have actual degrees in this area have pondered what van Gogh could have been thinking and feeling during this time in his life and they have undoubtedly come up with a better interpretation than I have. What this assignment has taught me is to look for something that is not there at first glance. You wouldn’t guess that van Gogh was insecure just by glancing at the painting as you walk by. It’s something you must study, and think about to truly have an appreciation for it.