“I wish they would only take me as I am,” Vincent van Gogh once said. But how did he take himself? The Dutch painter was mercurial, as we see in the first major exhibition at London’s newly refurbished Courtauld Gallery, which brings together 16 of Van Gogh’s self-portraits—many of which haven’t been together since they were in the artist’s studio more than a century ago—for the first time. “Van Gogh: Self-Portraits” pairs works on loan from around the world with Self-Portrait with a Bandaged Head, the prized possession of the museum’s namesake, the industrialist and art collector Samuel Courtauld.
“It is incredibly emotional to see the works together,” says the exhibition’s curator, Karen Serres. “You look around the rooms and have the same person looking at you but in different guises and using different artistic styles.”
The impact of Van Gogh’s self-portraits is powerful—so powerful that when we think of him it is always as he saw himself and never, say, as he appeared in the single photograph of him that exists today. “Seeing the portraits together reaffirmed to me what an experimental artist Van Gogh was,” Serres says. “And seeing the works in the flesh reaffirmed what an incredible painter he was just from a technical point of view—there are passages of paint, especially in his hair and beard, where he has applied a rainbow of colors.”
The changes in Van Gogh’s painting style are clear in his self-portraits. The lion’s share were created in Paris. Van Gogh arrived there from Belgium in February of 1886 to discover firsthand the new and exciting use of color in the City of Light. He could not have chosen a better time, for he fell in with a circle that included Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Georges Seurat, and Paul Cézanne. Van Gogh’s friendship with Paul Gauguin also began at this time.
The exhibition opens with 1887’s Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat, executed in a dark academic style. Change and progress are rapid, and the influence of Seurat is clear: first the dots are used just in the background, but quite quickly the artist becomes more confident, and dots become dashes and lines. By the summer of that year, when Van Gogh painted another self-portrait, he was already playing with the glorious palette of Monet, whose mauves, aquas, and blues create a halo effect around him—a technique he would use to great effect in The Night Café.
It is only in the last Parisian portrait that Van Gogh identifies himself as an artist, with palette, easel, and brushes. At the time, he was contemplating a trip to Arles, in the South of France, where he hoped to create a colony of artists. The picture crystallizes the moment: he is a painter of ambition, gazing toward the future.
Van Gogh arrived in Arles in February 1888, alone. He forged a friendship with the postman, Joseph Roulin, who became his lifeline to Paris, delivering artistic materials and letters from his brother Theo, and whom he regularly painted. Van Gogh’s time in Arles was incredibly productive: his second Sunflowers series was painted to decorate his house for the visit of Gauguin. This utopian friendship soured in just nine weeks, and a bitter fight led Van Gogh to cut off part of his ear with a razor blade—the stuff of legend.
In 1889’s Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, Van Gogh’s gaze is somewhere in the middle distance, his expression inscrutable—he offers no eye contact or contrition for his behavior, which put a wrench in his plan for an artistic colony. It is one of his best works.
In the final self-portrait—painted in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in September 1889, three months after The Starry Night and a year before Van Gogh died at 37—the artist already seems to be living among the stars. He is an ethereal being, his body becoming one with the swirls of blue night sky surrounding him. —Sarah Hyde
“Van Gogh: Self-Portraits” is on at London’s Courtauld Gallery through May 8
Sarah Hyde is a London-based writer