Throughout his life, like Rembrandt, Van Gogh painted and re-painted himself in different lights and with different approaches. His self-portraits have been the fodder for intense and highly debated psychoanalysis, and doubtless for a man like Vincent Van Gogh this approach to studying his art can lead to very interesting, if not enlightening, conclusions; but I will endeavor to stick to the artistic side of his work, since my chief interest is in conveying the importance of his art's impact on our study of Western art history, and forget Freudian psychology (for now).
After his move to France, Van Gogh's paintings became almost immediately infused with color. Vibrant, vivid, and even excessive, the colors in these later paintings of his surge with a kind of kinetic energy along the surface of the canvas. We'll see this more in just a little bit, but for now we can see an immediate change from the previous approach to painting which we saw with The Potato Eaters. Here the artist has painted himself with dots and quick, tiny brushstrokes of color that range all across the spectrum of the color wheel. On his face alone we see beige, red, orange, green, brown, and blue—all quite extreme colors and not toned down or mixed to a lighter shade. They are merely dabbed in scarcity here and there to add a vibrancy and electricity to the image. We barely notice that we are looking at so many colors, but our eye nonetheless feels the attraction to look at this image. On his coat we see even more colors: purples, turquoises, pinks, and reds. White lines his collar, and a bright blue patch marks a necktie or cravat. As if that wasn't enough, the background of this painting is sheer color. The viewer is given no sense of location or environment. All Van Gogh has done is paint dabs of color all around him, as if lost within his own painter's palate. And the colors aren't even subtle, either. Blue clashes with red clashes with green clashes with orange clashes with violet—what on earth is going on here? All these dots of color spotted onto the canvas and surrounding the painter appears chaotic, overpowering, eclectic at best. Why so many colors? The answer to this simple but greatly significant question is made clearer as we delve a bit deeper into Van Gogh's artwork….