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Behind the Art: Is Oslo’s Van Gogh Self-Portrait the most disturbing portrait of all time?

Is Oslo's Van Gogh Self-Portrait the most disturbing portrait of all time? Why did Van Gogh paint so many self-portraits?

After decades of doubt, this gloomy self-portrait has been authenticated as a genuine work by Vincent van Gogh and the only known work painted while he had psychosis. (Photo: nasjonalmuseet.no)

Vincent Van Gogh is not only known for his brilliant brushstrokes but also for the tragic ending to his life that highlighted his mental illnesses. Over 10 years, he created over 30 self-portraits, some of which have been sold for millions of dollars. However, one self-portrait from 1889 is by far the most haunting portrait of the acclaimed artist. Often called the Oslo self-portrait which is owned by the Nasjonalmuseet in Norway has been a mystery that only recently got solved in 2020. The art world simply refused to believe that this could be the work of Van Gogh because of the missing vibrant colours and the apparent gloominess in the painting. After decades of doubt, this gloomy self-portrait has been authenticated as a genuine work by Vincent van Gogh and the only known work painted while he had psychosis. What is the story behind this piece of art and why did Van Gogh paint so many self-portraits in his lifetime?

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The haunting reality of the artist and his painting

After the infamous incident of Van Gogh cutting off his ear and handing it over to a prostitute for ‘safe keeping’, the artist admitted himself to a small asylum in Saint-Rémy, France, in May 1889. It was there where he created the most brilliant artworks of his lifetime including The Starry Night. However, he was often going through severe psychotic episodes that lasted for weeks during which he did not know what he said or did. One such episode took place in July 1889 that lasted for a month and a half. It frightened him and he painted this painting to show his brother that he is doing better. The artist wrote to his brother Theo in September, about a self-portrait “attempt from when I was ill”. Van Gogh was frightened to admit he was in a similar state to other residents at the asylum. He wanted to try to paint more and show the world that he is of a healthy mind.

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Did Van Gogh paint this gloomy self-portrait?

Vincent Van Gogh’s mental state was no secret from anyone post his alleged suicide. The Nasjonalmuseet in Oslo purchased the painting in 1910, making it – in theory – the first Van Gogh self-portrait to enter a public collection. But due to questions over its style and use of colour, some experts doubted its authenticity. The museum then asked the Van Gogh Museum to study the style, technique, and provenance in 2014, results of which were finally revealed to the world in 2020. One of the reasons for doubts about the work’s authenticity was Van Gogh’s use of a palette knife to flatten parts of the painting, thought to be unusual. Critics believe the artist was trying to deliberately drain the life from the portrait and that reflected his state of mind.

The art world simply refused to believe that this could be the work of Van Gogh because of the missing vibrant colours and the apparent gloominess in the painting. (Photo: nasjonalmuseet.no)

Van Gogh purposely hid the ear he severed in the painting and wrote on 22 August 1889 that he was still “disturbed” but felt able to paint again. This portrait if put next to his other ones, shows how his health was deteriorating over time. After authenticating this piece of art, the Van Gogh Museum stated “The Oslo self-portrait depicts someone who is mentally ill; his timid, sideways glance is easily recognisable and is often found in patients suffering from depression and psychosis”

Why did Van Gogh paint so many self-portraits?

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A very common question asked by Van Gogh lovers is why the artist painted so many self-portraits. Was he that vain or did he simply want to convince himself and the world that he is mentally fit to paint? There is a famous quote by the artist: ‘People say – and I’m quite willing to believe it – that it’s difficult to know oneself – but it’s not easy to paint oneself either.’ According to the Van Gogh Museum, he did not paint self-portraits because he was vain. He produced his self-portraits because he wanted to practise painting people. He painted over 25 self-portraits while he was in Paris (1886–88 ) and because was he short of money in that period and struggled to find models, he painted himself. He even painted self-portraits on the back of other paintings to save money. In July 2022 a hidden self-portrait was discovered in the collection of The National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh. The self-portraits help us discover more about his personality. Van Gogh often showcased himself as restrained and severe in his paintings. He described the last one he did in Paris as ‘quite unkempt and sad’ […] something like, say, the face of – death’. This tells the viewers how mentally and physically exhausted he was at that time.

Artists across the world have drawn inspiration from Vincent’s self-portraits, so much so that they have been reproduced an infinite number of times since the early 20th century. The self-portraits tell a story of a man who was a tortured genius. Someone who loved the colour yellow and was very fond of sunflowers as they gave him hope that he would one day be better. The Oslo self-portrait shows him at his lowest, experiencing a psychotic episode, and however haunting it may be to look at, it makes you appreciate Van Gogh for who he was despite his struggles in life – a tormented genius.

Next Up in Behind the Art: Why is the painting ‘Madame X’ by John Singer Sargent worth about $106,000.00 and so controversial? Why did the public hate the artwork and the painter for it? 

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First published on: 02-10-2022 at 10:15 IST
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