Vincent Van Gogh stares at the viewer from behind steely eyes, his face turned at a three-quarter view. His skin, pallid and yellowed, gives him a slightly jaundiced look. He wears a short red beard that rises to meet the red hair on his head. Intense brush strokes and slathered paint carve out his facial features; the strokes' fury subsides only within Van Gogh's eyes.

He wears a blue cape tied around his neck, the right side of which is painted as distinctly separate from a background of similar color. The other side of his cape more easily fades into the patterned blue background that swirls like a whirlpool around Van Gogh's head. A painter's palette dabbed with various paints occupies the foreground.


Self-Portrait from 1889, one of the final self-portraits Van Gogh painted, was made during his internment at the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole in Saint-Rémy, Provence. In early July of 1889, Van Gogh suffered from a psychotic episode that incapacitated him for five weeks. "Self-Portrait" was painted in one sitting immediately after Van Gogh regained his composure.

If viewed as a commentary on the artist's mental state, the painting offers some insight into Van Gogh's angst. The intense, swirling background suggests a whirlpool or hurricane, and it invites the viewer to consider Van Gogh's external world as chaotic and enclosing. The physical epicenter for the fury behind Van Gogh's head appears to be his left eye. Just as the eye of a storm is calm, so too is Van Gogh's. His intense gaze that fixes the viewer is the focal point of the painting and also its most serene point--a point of refuge both for the viewer and perhaps for Van Gogh himself, for the eye's clarity suggests some degree of internal peace.

Contrast Van Gogh's self-portrait with Gauguin's symbolized Self-Portrait with Halo, or with the serious and satiric self-portraits of Elizabeth Layton (see annotation of The Life and Art of Elizabeth "Grandma" Layton).

Primary Source

Collection of Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.