The Self-Portraits of Vincent Van Gogh

19th Century Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh is one of the most well known painters who has ever lived, he created hundreds of works of art that continue to impress people over a hundred years after his death.

Among his many works Van Gogh was known for his many self portraits, the majority of them were painted in less than a five year period and portray the artist in a variety of ways.  He drew and painted at least 43 self-portraits in less between 1885-1890. 

Lets compare and contrast several of them and see what we can learn about Van Gogh from how he saw and painted himself.

Self-Portrait of the Artist, Vincent Van Gogh, 1887, Art Institute of Chicago

The above painting from the Art Institute of Chicago shows the painters new interest in Impressionism. Van Gogh was born in 1853 in the Netherlands and had moved to Paris to live with his brother Theo in March of 1886.  While there he was introduced to many Impressionist painters and was influenced by both their vibrant colors and their loose brushstrokes of paint.  Before moving to Paris Van Gogh used a darker and more traditional palette. Here he is experimenting with new colors and painting methods.

Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat, October 1887, Vincent Van Gogh, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

The Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat was painted in Paris at a time when Van Gogh is experimenting with new colors and techniques and has had quite a bit of influence from the Impressionist movement.

Through his many self portraits we have a good idea of his physical appearance, Van Gogh had red hair and blue eyes and he wore a beard most of the time.  He had a rather thin face, making him appear older than his mid-30's, he had deep set eyes and a long, straight nose.  He usually has a look of intense concentration, perhaps as he is both the model and artist in these works and needed to concentrate.  Smiling in a portrait didn't come into fashion until the early 20th century as it wouldn't have been possible to hold the pose of a smile, either as a model for a painting or for one of the earlier and much slower photographic methods.

From 1887-1889 he painted the majority of self portraits, most of them while he was living in Paris.  He painted his Self-Portrait at the Easel  while in Paris before moving to Arles, it is thought to be his final painting from his time in Paris.

Self -Portrait Dedicated to Gaugin, (Also called Worshipper of the Eternal Buddha)
Vincent Van Gogh, Spring 1888, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard

Influenced by Japanese prints, Van Gogh painted his Self -Portrait Dedicated to Gaugin in Arles in the spring of 1888 shortly after he moved there and then sent it to Paul Gauguin.  Van Gogh wanted to create an artist's community in Arles and very much wanted Gauguin to move there and live with him.  Van Gogh was constantly inspired by the colors in the South of France, he named the house he lived in "The Yellow House" and painted every day.

Gauguin did move to Arles in October of 1888 and lived in the "Yellow House" with Van Gogh for three months.  While they did enjoy painting together and influenced each other's work, they also quarreled frequently.  Their last quarrel led to Van Gogh cutting off part of his ear and needing to be hospitalized, at that point Gauguin left Arles.

Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, Vincent Van Gogh, January 1889, The Courtauld Gallery, London

After he cut off his ear in a fit of madness he was hospitalized, he painted this shortly after his release in early January when he returned to the Yellow House in Arles.  The influence of Japanese prints continues in the background.  Though there are other portraits of him without his beard, it was rare for him to paint himself beardless.

His painting himself while injured and bandaged shows how the artist was trying to understand why he had done such a thing rather than shying away from it.  It is commonly thought that Van Gogh was suffering from a form of mental illness, though at that time no one knew what it was exactly.  Van Gogh himself really wanted to understand his motivations and a few months later voluntarily checked himself into an asylum.

Self-Portrait of the Artist, Vincent Van Gogh, September 1889, Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Musée d'Orsay has one of Van Gogh's later portraits (pictured above) that he painted during the time that he lived in the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum in Saint-Remy.  He lived there for a year, from May 1889 to May 1890.  This was also the time when Van Gogh painted this famous work, The Starry Night.

During the same month he painted this self-portrait he wrote the following in a letter to his brother, Theo-

        “It is difficult to know oneself, but it isn’t easy to paint oneself either."

This is one of my favorite paintings of Vincent Van Gogh, and I have been able to see it in person.  A photograph doesn't show how thickly he applied his paint and how much texture he incorporated in the work.  Keeping in mind that he was in a mental asylum when he painted this self-portrait the viewer can see the look of intensity in his bright blue eyes.  That same color blue dominates the painting, both in his clothes and in the background, the work is vibrant and full of movement.

Van Gogh often didn't have much money and by painting himself he always had a ready model, he may also have painted his portrait to emulate the great "Old Masters" and to learn more about himself by studying himself closely in the mirror.

On this Date in History, October 4: Birth of Cranach, Piranesi, Millet and Remington

What happened on this date in art history?  

Interior of the Pantheon (commonly called the Rotunda)
from Vedute di Roma (Views of Rome), Giovanni Battista Piranesi, 1768

October 4 is the birthday of four different artists from the 16th to the 19th century: Lucas Cranach the Younger, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Jean-François Millet and Frederic Remington.

Portrait of the Artist's Father, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Lucas Cranach the Younger, 1550

Lucas Cranach the Younger (October 4, 1515 – January 25, 1586) was a German artist, whose father was the well known and prolific Lucas Cranach the Elder (pictured above in a portrait by his son).  Cranach the Younger trained with his father and was a successful artist in his own right, producing dozens of paintings and woodcuts.  He found success with secular themes right after the Protestant Reformation.

The Gothic Arch, Etching from the series: The Imaginary Prisons, c-1750

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (October 4, 1720 – November 9, 1778) was an Italian artist best known for his hundreds of etchings including views of Rome, Pompeii and his series on "Le Carceri d'Invenzione" or The Imaginary Prisons.  Piranesi was born and raised in the Veneto region of Italy, where he trained in both architecture and stage design for theater and opera. 

However he later moved to Rome and he spent most of his life in Rome which gave him the inspiration for his art.

The Gleaners, Jean François Millet, the Louvre, 1857

Jean-François Millet (October 4, 1814 – January 20, 1875) grew up on a modest farm in Normandy.  He was educated in both art and literature and move tod Paris in 1837 to further his studies in art at the Ecole des Beaux Arts.  Instead he joined the studio of a minor master painter, Paul Delaroche. 

Millet's talent as a painter was evident and he started receiving critical acclaim in the early 1840's. Millet moved to Barbizon in 1849 and remained there for the rest of his life.  He is perhaps best known for he work “The Gleaners”, as an artist Millet wanted to paint farmers and peasants performing their daily tasks of work, which was a big change from the popular history and mythology paintings popular at that time.  

The End of the Day, Frederic Remington (1861-1909)

Frederic Remington (October 4, 1861 – December 26, 1909) was an American artist best known for his drawings, paintings and sculptures of the American West.  He studied art both at Yale University and the Art Students League in New York City.  He traveled to Montana and Kansas, where he had a studio for a while.  He returned to New York where he worked as a writer and artist.  During his life his work was published in over 40 magazines and newspapers.

On a note other than art history, October 4, 1582 was the last day before the new "Gregorian Calendar" that is still in use today was implemented.  Pope Gregory XIII worked to reform the former calendar by correcting some miscalculations.  In the year 1582, October 4 was followed by October 15, the first day in the new calendar.

Giovanna Garzoni

Giovanna Garzoni, 1600-1670, was a successful and talented Italian Baroque painter who traveled around Europe and worked for the Medici family for a decade.  She was best known for both her miniature portraits and her botanical paintings.

Chinese Porcelain Plate with Cherries, Giovanna Garzoni, c- 1651-62

Garzoni was born in Ascoli Piceno (in the Marche region) in 1600 to Venetian parents. While she was still young the family moved to Rome where she was raised.  Garzoni was the daughter of painter Nunzio Garzoni, who worked as a miniaturist and also the niece of painter Pietro Gaia. It is thought she studied painting under them.  As a young woman she moved to Venice with her brother where she studied calligraphy and received several important painting commissions for religious altarpieces.

Not much is known about her early life, she may have been married while young and a short time later had the marriage annulled.  She traveled and worked in several major Italian cities such as Naples, Venice, Florence and Rome.

After her time in Venice Garzoni briefly moved to Naples and while there worked for the Viceroy, which attracted the attention of the Duchess of Savoy, Christine Marie of France (shown below).

Christine Marie of France, Duchess of Savoy, wife of Vittorio Amedeo I,
Giovanna Garzoni, 1635, miniature painting, Uffizi Gallery, Florence,

 Among Garzoni's best known works were her miniature portraits, done while she was working for Victor Amadeus I, the Duke of Savoy.  The Duchess of Savoy, Christine Marie of France (1606–1663), (pictured) was one of the daughters of Henry IV of France and Marie de' Medici.   Following her husbands death, Duchess Christine Marie served as regent of the Duchy from 1637 to 1663.

Portrait of Victor Amadeus I, Duke of Savoy (1587-1637), Giovanna Garzoni, 1635,
miniature portrait, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

As the Duchess was part of the Medici family, Giovanna was introduced to them through her, they were impressed by her skill as a painter and she traveled back an forth between the Medici courts in Rome and Florence working from them.  During this time Garzoni mainly painted botanical subject matter for which she is now best known.

Still Life with a Bowl of Citrons, Giovanna Garzoni, late 1640's, tempera on vellum, Getty Museum

The Medici Court in Florence had a tradition of commissioning botanical paintings. In addition to Garzoni Florentine painters Jacopo Ligozzi (1541-1587) and Bartolomeo Bimbi (1648-1729) also painted hundreds of botanical and still-life paintings for the family. In the 16th and 17th century the Medici were quite interested in plants and the natural world, and their love of botanical paintings stemmed from that.

While Garzoni may have been influenced by the paintings of Ligozzi during her time in Florence, she had been commissioned to paint a herbarium in Rome as a teenager and therefore had previous experience painting botanicals.

Figs, Bartolomeo Bimbi, 1696, oil on canvas (116 x 155 cm) Villa Medicea (Poggio a Caiano)

Based on his work and subject matter and the fact that he would have been exposed to her work, it appears that Bartolomeo Bimbi was influenced by the work of Garzoni.  Compare their two versions of paintings of figs.

Figs, Giovanna Garzoni, 1650's, watercolor on parchment,
Palatine Gallery, Pitti Palace, Florence, 9.65 " x 13.5 " (245 x 345 mm)

Giovanna Garzoni's very detailed, carefully rendered and exquisitely painted botanical works were praised and sought after.  She spent at least a decade working on these at the Medici courts.  During this time she painted a wide variety of plants, fruit and vegetables, birds and insects.

China Bowl with Figs, a Bird, and Cherries, Giovanna Garzoni, 1650's, watercolor on parchment, 
Palatine Gallery, Pitti Palace, Florence, 10.2" x 14.9" (260 x 380 mm)

Giovanna Garzoni was one of the most successful women painters in the 17th century. Her patrons included several Dukes of Savoy (Turin), the Medici Family (Florence and Rome) and the Colonna family (Rome).  The 17th century artist, art historian and author Carlo Ridolfi included her in his "Le Maraviglie dell'Arte" which was his comprehensive volume on artists and their are, and her botanical paintings continue to influence artists centuries after her lifetime.