Art, now removed from a general audience and deviating from subject matter and realism, comes to be about the artist. Stuck in a mental institution, Van Gogh is unable to be a flâneur among the crowd or a "painter of Modern life," as Baudelaire had defined for the previous generation. Within himself, nevertheless, there is enough subject matter for a body of work that can last a lifetime. If Monet established the complexity of particles of light and the simple subjects of haystacks and water lilies, then Van Gogh takes an even further step back to look into the complexities of himself. Art, after all, is infinite; the possibilities are endless, since artists are not recreating reality. The artist can paint any way he wants to; and Van Gogh chooses to paint the way he feels.
In this emotional work, of an Old Man in Sorrow on the Threshold of Eternity, the artist goes to absolute extremes to express himself through art. The color scheme of the entire background and surroundings follow a consistent theme of browns, beiges, and oranges, but stuck in the middle of it all is a man whose color so starkly and intentionally clashes with the rest of the painting, that the painting appears to be in conflict with itself. The deep blue of his clothes is so raw and vivid; Van Gogh wants to stress the image of this old man amid the cloud of his surroundings. He sits alone in a chair and buries his head passionately in his palms, clearly overcome by some sudden pang of emotion. Once again, the artist has saturated the canvas with paint so thickly that it sticks out from the painting almost in architectural relief form. The amount of paint is over the top; the colors are intense; the subject is dramatic—this painting conveys nothing if not strong emotion. We see an old man bent in agony and are given no context as to his situation. Fear, regret, despair—whatever it is, his eyes are hid from us, and the only feature of his face that gets presented clearly is his bald head, emblematic of his old age and impending death. This was a theme that Van Gogh doubtlessly felt personally. He painted it less than three months before his own death by suicide.