The Last Two Self Portraits By Van Gogh

Here are the last two self portraits of Van Gogh, along with the descriptions that accompanied the portraits in the exhibition running until the 8th May at The Courtauld Gallery in London.

The first one, with him looking hunted and exposed like an animal, reminds me of the paintings of Francis Bacon.

The portrait itself is held at the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo. That made me laugh because the museum also houses Munch’s The Scream. Shades of Scandinavian noir.

Getting back to the two Van Gogh self portraits, the second shows him so much more optimistic. He is a painter with the tools of his job. And then something happened between September 1889 and his death the following July when he shot himself.

At least that is the narrative that you find in most biographies. There is another narrative, however. In the film ‘Loving Vincent’, that suggests that a young man, René Secretan, who reportedly liked to torment Van Gogh, may have shot him in a drunken dare.

Secretan had a gun and was seen waving it around when drunk. A Dr. Mazery, who examined Van Gogh’s body, said that the shot must have come from a few feet away, which rules out suicide.

We will never know for sure, but we have doubt over there being only one narrative.

There are fifteen self portraits in the exhibition, brought from galleries all around the world. It is a masterful exhibition and as the commentary to the second portrait says “The two self-portraits haven’t been seen together since leaving the workroom in the asylum in Saint-Rémy where Van Gogh painted them.”

Commentary To The Second-To-Last Portrait

SELF-PORTRAIT Saint-Rémy, late August 1889
Oil paint on canvas
In May 1889, following a series of relapses in his mental health, Van Gogh voluntarily entered a psychiatric hospital near SaintRémy-de-Provence. In a letter to his brother Theo, he described this painting as ‘an attempt from when I was ill’. It was the first work he created following a severe crisis in summer 1889. As he had done earlier with Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, Van Gogh returned to painting his own features to help him regain his sense of identity. He firmly believed that ‘if recover…. it’ll be because I’ve cured myself by working, which fortifies the will and consequently allows these mental weaknesses less hold’. This was a courageous stance in the face of great distress.
The unusual character of this work means that its attribution to Van Gogh has long been doubted. Recent archival and technical examination have confirmed its authorship, adding a new dimension to Van Gogh’s self-portraiture.
The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo

Commentary To The Last Portrait

SELF-PORTRAIT Saint-Rémy, first week of September 1889 Oil paint on canvas
This is a rare example of Vincent van Gogh representing himself as a painter at work. Brushes and a palette with four colours the main pigments used in this portrait (the pink on the right should be red but has faded) protrude from the bottom of the composition.
This exhibition marks the first time in over 130 years that this self-portrait is reunited with the painting on its left, painted only a week earlier but showing Van Gogh in a very different light. Here, he appears more confident and less introverted. The two self-portraits haven’t been seen together since leaving the workroom in the asylum in Saint-Rémy where Van Gogh painted them.
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Tamara’s Comment

My wife booked the tickets for the exhibition online, and after the exhibition she received an invitation to give feedback.

To set the scene, the Courtauld Gallery has recently been renovated. It houses some world famous paintings and is more than worthy of a visit even without the Van Gogh exhibition. As Tamara explained in her feedback, she was primarily interested in the renovation, and thought she had seen enough Van Gogh paintings and was surely not going to be blown away by seeing more of them.

Here is her feedback comment:

I have gone to many exhibitions at many museums in different parts of the world. That includes past exhibitions about Van Gogh. I wanted to come to your museum to see the renovation of your gallery, and then noticed the exhibition. I was definitely blasé about the Van Gogh ‘Self Portraits’ exhibition to which we also got tickets. This was even though I read reviews that said it was terrific. I figured, well, Van Gogh is wonderful, but I’ve seen so many of his exhibitions.

However, WOW, I was blown away by the exhibition, it was fabulous!!! I saw aspects of him that I hadn’t before. Importantly for me, I thought the curating of the exhibition was super, so, so well done. And you had great texts describing and comparing the paintings: Just excellent writing, with no over the top, ‘high falutin’ texts that are a far reach to reality that I too often see at museums.

No, the Van Gogh exhibition was top flight with everything. His genius leaped out of the frames. It was superb, one of the best exhibitions that I have seen anywhere.

And a great lesson to me that I was so blasé. And of course, ultimately – hurrah for Van Gogh… although my husband and I were so sad to see what he painted so close to his death. Many thanks to your museum, your curators, and to everyone who put that splendid exhibition together and on for the public. Fantastic!

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