A Closer Look at Vincent van Gogh’s 1887 “Self-Portrait” January 30, 2019

Vincent van Gogh’s self-portraits, which established the painter as one of the most famous faces in art history, reveal a deeper look into his processes and methods. A self-portrait painted in 1887 is featured in the exhibition Vincent van Gogh: His Life in Art, which opens March 10.

Although Van Gogh made numerous portraits of others in the very early part of his career, he did not attempt any self-portraits before moving to Paris in 1886. Once he embarked on this genre, he proceeded in an almost frenzied manner, painting 27 self-portraits between 1886 and 1888.¹

The painting in the MFAH exhibition was probably carried out in the spring of 1887, under the direct influence of Pointillism, a style of painting that employed dots of pure color. Pointillist paintings had been featured in the Impressionist exhibition in the spring of 1886 and made a significant impact on the avant-garde artists. Van Gogh personally knew Paul Signac,² a devoted disciple of Georges Seurat, who is credited with inventing this technique. Van Gogh’s 1887 self-portrait clearly indicates the artist’s personal interpretation of Pointillism, using very short brushstrokes instead of dots.

Van Gogh shows himself in the classic three-quarter profile, wearing the same brown jacket with blue-green trim that is found in several of his self-portraits of this period. His clothes distinguish him as a bourgeois gentleman. A halo of light blue dabs enlivens the neutral background around the head and upper shoulders, separating him from the background. This effect, however, was not Van Gogh’s intention—it resulted from the fading of a purple underlayer of color: A black-and-white photograph from 1908 shows the densely painted canvas, but fading had changed the image to its present state by 1949, as documented by a photograph from that year.³

See this self-portrait and many more in Vincent van Gogh: His Life in Art, on view in the Beck Building from March 10 through June 27.

¹ Louis van Tilborgh and Ella Hendriks, Vincent van Gogh Paintings, vol. 2, Antwerp and Paris, 1885–1888, Van Gogh Museum (Amsterdam and Zwolle: Van Gogh Museum/Waanders, 2011), 264.
² Françoise Cachin, Signac: Catalogue raisonné de l’oeuvre peint (Paris: Gallimard, 2000), 32–33.
³ Van Tilborgh and Hendriks, Vincent van Gogh Paintings, vol. 2, 361.