The artist faces the viewer at a slight angle. He wears a bandage across his ear and under his chin, a purple and black winter cap upon his head, and a green overcoat with only the top button fastened. His sallow skin, in combination with the bandage, makes clear that the artist is unwell. In the background, upon a yellow wall, hangs one completed painting, vibrant and colorful, depicting a landscape and three women. Another painting that is only a sketch sits on a wooden easel to Van Gogh's right. A small section of a large window is visible on the right side of the painting.

Every color used to paint Van Gogh's person and clothing finds its pair in his surroundings: the purple of his hat couples with the window, his yellow skin couples with the wall, his overcoat and eyes pair with the landscape in the painting on the wall, and the white of his bandage complements the sketch behind him.


Now one of the most popular Post-impressionist painters, Van Gogh failed to find critical acclaim or success during his lifetime. Born in Holland, the young Van Gogh apprenticed for a time at an art dealership, but after being fired, he held myriad odd jobs including employment as a preacher. Van Gogh formally schooled in 1885-6 in Antwerp, returned to Paris in 1886, and befriended artists including Degas, Gauguin, and Seurat.

"Self-Portrait with a Bandaged Ear" was painted after Van Gogh began to suffer from serious mental illness, including psychotic episodes and delusions. The painting was directly motivated by a psychotic attack, during which Van Gogh chased and threatened Gauguin with a knife. Immediately following this episode, Van Gogh returned home, cut his ear off, and offered it to a prostitute as a gift.

After his hospitalization, Van Gogh discovered that Gauguin had left Arles and that Van Gogh's dreams of forming an artistic community had been destroyed by his own behavior. After suffering a nervous breakdown, he checked himself into a sanatorium. In 1890, Van Gogh succumbed to his illness and depression. He shot himself in the chest and died two days later.

For insight into Van Gogh's changing self-image, contrast "Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear" with Self-Portrait from the same year, 1889, which was painted immediately after Van Gogh recovered from a mental collapse (see annotation).

Primary Source

Courtauld Institute Galleries, London