Dividing the background expanse of red from yellow, and surrounded by a halo, three apples--green, red, and purple, four yellow papyrus blossoms, and a snake held between the fingers of the artist's hand, a disembodied head appears caricature-like in this self-portrait.


Ironic, perhaps deliberately humorous, this self-portrait is a symbolist's delight. Is the artist viewing himself as hero, seer, magician, tempter, Christ, Satan, betrayed lover, or jokester? Various title changes reflect the interest in iconography: "Portrait-charge de l'auteur," "unkind character sketch," "L'Alpha et l'omega," "Portrait a l'aureole et au serpent" (Maurice Malingue, "Du nouveau sur Gauguin," L'Oeil , July-August 1959, pp. 35, 38; referenced in The Art of Paul Gauguin, p. 165). The hieroglyphs and colors are suggestive of the heat and light of creation, hell fire, sexual allusions and perhaps the artist's jealousy.

Viewed alongside photographs of men and women with HIV/AIDS (see Epitaphs for the Living: Words and Images in the Time of AIDS, this data base), where each image is captioned with the person's own signature and words, and then, again, beside those in Mary Fisher's book, Angels in Our Midst (see this database), this portrait focuses us on both the patient and physician's experience. Fisher's angels are the caretakers, doctors, nurses, family members. Would Gauguin have us include artists, photographers and journalists? Would he halo surgeons and researchers?

The aura of medical knowledge and science fiction which pervades Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (see this database), or the feelings of guilt, trespass, power, mean spiritedness and the dark side of human nature which The Doctor Stories of William Carlos Williams and Richard Selzer admit to and explore, confront first year medical students as early as their cadaver dissection experience with the multiple identities existing within each of us.

On an adjacent cupboard panel in the inn where they were living and working, Gauguin painted a portrait of his colleague and friend Meyer de Haan (see The Art of Paul Gauguin, p. 168). The decorative and repeated elements of colors, apples, Haan's caricatured face, and clearly legible book titles--Sartor Resartus by Carlyle and Paradise Lost by Milton--strengthen the interpretation of tensions between culture and nature, innocence and temptation, knowledge and power.


Painted 1889

Primary Source

National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.