Post Impressionism: Van Gough (Self Portrait)

Van Gogh Biography

The work chosen is the highly symbolic work of Vincent Van Gough and his Self Portrait which he painted while he prolifically worked during his stay in the mental asylum in Saint Remy. Van Gough was a troubled man from the beginning of his life. At the age of 16 he was offered a position in his uncle’s art dealership. He then moved to London to pursue this but after a failed relationship was sacked from his job. Later he found a job collecting fees for a local private school which brought him in contact with poverty. However, he refused to take money of the poor and was again sacked. In a similar incident he was again sacked from his job as a Methodist preacher as his overly emphatic nature led him to give away all his food, money and clothes. He attended art school in Belgium for a year but failed. He returned home to Theo, his brother who paid for his tuition in Paris by Cromer.  In Paris, Van Gough was greatly influenced by Picasso and Cezanne as well as many others. He got money from Theo to move to Sicily. Theo was an emotional and financial support to Vincent throughout his life. In Sicily, Van Gough had hopes of setting up a post-impressionist colony but this failed and it ended up in the loss of his ear. Van Gough later shot himself when he found out that Theo was struggling financially and didn’t want to be burden on his brother. Van Gough died in his brother’s arms 3 days later having only ever sold one painting.

Self portrait

The style of the painting is a typical post-impressionism one ties in closely to the techniques used. The style is one which has the face of Van Gough in much greater detail than that of the swirling abstract background. This background can only presumably represent the mental turmoil of Van Gough as he suffered hallucinations and convulsions in terrifying fits during his stay at the mental asylum. The style uses complimentary colours to great effect as it cast Van Gough’s face (surrounded by red and orange hair) in stark contrast to the blue and green tones in the painting. Thick impasto work can be seen in the swirling abstract background as layer upon layer is added together. Impasto can also be seen in the thick red hair of the painter himself. No attempt in the style is made to perfect any of Van Gough’s flaws as his realistic and accurate depiction of himself shows prominent jaws and shocking orange hair.  Other techniques used are optical mixing which can be seen in the pale skin with flecks of blue. Optical mixing is when two or more colours come together to mix in the eyes of the viewer as one; as in Monet’s Impression Sunrise. The face is painted much crispier than the symbolic, passionate, emotive brush sticks used in the background of the painting. The composition of the painting is mainly filled with the head and shoulders of Vincent himself. Van Gough wears a blue jacket and top while his body ¾ turned to face the viewer.  Van Gough looks the viewer dead in the eye with a calm complexion. His thoughts and emotions symbolised by the background.  The head and shoulders are drawn in the centre of the page and are the main focal point. Materials used in the painted would have been oil on canvas. This was typical for the time which contrasted to the mixed media Degas was famous for. The picture is obviously painted too. The period in which this was painted is known as post impressionism. It was painted around 1889 which was during his stay at the mental asylum. Post impressionism was characterised by several distinctive points. While the period was influenced by impressionism (Degas, Monet, Renoir) they became disillusioned by it and painters such as Van Gogh and Cezanne wanted to bring painted back from capturing abstract things to capturing more traditional elements of painting such as form, volume, texture that were shown in the greater masters work. While each post-impressionist had very individual styles, each of them were united in their thoughts. Characterized by the abstract backgrounds and more realistic depictions the movement never fully got going.  They also used many of the impressionist techniques such as wet paint on wet paint, optical mixing and impasto.

Another work by Van Gogh is the famous Sunflowers. He painted them for his beloved friend Gaugin, who’s favourite colour was yellow.  There was 11 of this painting, a series, similar to those painted by Monet.  The subject matter is of dead, dying, young and living budding flowers.  This represents the life cycle of humanity. It is painted almost in monochrome yellow (inspired by artist Lewis Anqeutin). However there can be dashes of green seen in the stalks and blue outlining the table and his signature on the vase. The flowers are painted in such detail in some areas they appear 3D. In stark contrast to the flat yellow luminous yellow background. The vase and the table are also painted flatly and mimic the yellows seen in the flowers.  Van Gogh choose yellow to represent happiness and joy.  The flowers stand out above to their flat surroundings. The 14 flowers take up the whole of the composition.  Thick impasto can be seen in the gestural brushstroke in the petaled flowers and stifled impasto seen in the dead buds. He wanted this painting to be admired like Gaugin did with his other sunflowers work.