Vincent Van Gogh self portrait

Vincent Van Gogh’s Words & Art

1853 – 1890

This painting is believed, my many, to be Vincent Van Gogh’s last self-portrait. It was painted in September 1889, shortly before he left Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in Southern France for Auvers-Our-Oise to be treated for his reoccurring bouts of mental illness. He brought the painting with him to show Dr. Paul Gachet, who told Vincent he thought it was “absolutely fanatical.” Van Gogh painted it while in Arles following his admission into a hospital after cutting off a portion of his ear with a razor. When he sent the painting to his brother Theo, who was an art dealer in Paris, it was accompanied with a letter, stating, “You will need to study [the picture] for a time. I hope you will notice that my facial expressions have become much calmer.” Some art historians believe the dissolving colors and turbulent patterns express his unstable state of mind. It is my belief the painting captures the essence of the great artist he sought to become and finally became. Yet at a tragically high cost.

Excerpts from letters to his brother Theo & Sister Wil:

1878. At age 25, upon hearing of the death of painter Charles-François Daubigny, whose work Van Gogh admired, Vincent wrote: “It must be good to die in the knowledge that one has done some truthful work and to know that, as a result, one will live on in memory of at least a few and leave a good example for those who come after.” During the last few months of his life, Vincent visited the home of Daubigny, where his widow still lived, and made three paintings all titled “Daubigny’s Garden.”

Daubigny’s Garden

1880. Age 27. “I am a man of passions, capable of and given to doing more or less outrageous things for which I sometimes feel a little sorry … Try to grasp the essence of what the great artists, the serious masters, say in their masterpieces, and you will again find God in them.”

1881. Van Gogh abandoned his religious studies to become an artist, learning to draw and paint. Harshly criticized by his father and others for pursuing this career path, he wrote: “What I am in the eyes of most people – a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person – somebody who has no position in society and never will have, in short, the lowest of the low.”

1884. “Art is something greater and higher than our own skill or knowledge or learning. Art is something which, though produced by human hands, is not wrought by hands alone, but wells up from a deeper source, from man’s soul.”

Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette (early painting)

1885. Upon completing (what many consider to be) his first masterpiece, the painting Potato Eaters, Vincent wrote: “The point is that I’ve tried to bring out the idea that these people eating potatoes by the light of their lamp have dug the earth with the self-same hands they are now putting into the dish, and it suggests manual labour and – a meal honestly earned. I wanted to convey a picture of a way of life quite different from ours, from that of civilized people.”

Potato Eaters
Eugene Delacroix

1885. Van Gogh was a great admirer of the French painter Delacroix, who he frequently mentioned in his letters. Reflecting on the rejections and criticism Vincent received for his drawings and paintings, he wrote: “17 of Delacroix’s pictures were turned down all at the same time. That shows – to me at least – that he and others of that period were faced with connoisseurs and non-connoisseurs alike, who neither understood them nor wanted to buy anything by them – but that they, who are rightly called ‘les vaillants’ [the brave] didn’t talk of fighting a losing battle but went on painting.”

Orphan Girl at the Cemetery by Delacroix
Wheat Stacks with Reaper

1888. “I am still enchanted by snatches of the past, having a hankering after the eternal, of which the sower and the sheaf of corn are the symbols. But when shall I ever get round to doing the starry sky, that picture which is always in my mind?”

Starry Night

“Herewith another landscape. Setting sun? Rising moon? I painted it at the height of the mistral. My easel was fixed in the ground with iron pegs, a method I recommend to you. You push the legs of the easel deep into the ground, then drive iron pegs fifty centimeters long into the ground beside them. You tie the whole lot together with rope. This way you can work in the wind.”

“Landscape. Setting Sun? Rising Moon?”

“Christ alone, of all the philosophers, magicians, etc., has affirmed eternal life as the most important certainty, the infinity of time, the futility of death, the necessity and purpose of serenity and devotion. He lived serenely, as an artist greater than all other artists, scorning marble and clay and paint, working in the living flesh … ‘Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.’ These spoken words – which, like a prodigal grand seigneur, he did not even deign to write down – form one of the pinnacles, the highest pinnacle, reached by art, which at that point becomes creative force, pure creative force.”

Starry Night Over the Rhone

“I myself come back home after the mental exertion of having had to balance the six primary colours – red, blue, yellow, orange, lilac, green – a labour of cool calculation in which the mind is trained to the utmost, like an actor on the stage playing a difficult role – with a thousand and one things to think of simultaneously in one half hour.”

The Sower

“There is a lot of wind here, though, a very spiteful, whining wind – le mistral – a great nuisance most of the time if I have to paint in it, when I lay my canvas flat on the ground and work on my knees. Because the easel won’t keep steady.”

Wheat Field with Cypresses
Two Lovers

“I keep hoping that I’ll come up with something. To express the love of two lovers by the marriage of two complementary colours, their blending and their contrast, the mysterious vibrations of related tones. To express the thought of a brow by the radiance of a light tone against a dark background. To express hope by some star. Someone’s passion by the radiance of the setting sun.”

Noon: Rest from Work (inspired by Millet)

“In my picture of the Night Café, I have tried to express the idea that the café is a place where one can destroy oneself, go mad or commit a crime.”

Night Café

“This afternoon I had a select audience … 4 or 5 pimps and a dozen urchins, who found it extremely interesting watching the paint come out of the tubes. Well, that audience – there’s fame for you.”

The Reaper

“Aha! The reaper is finished. I think it’ll be one of those you’ll keep at home – it’s an image of death as the great book of nature speaks of it – but the effect I’ve been looking for is – ‘on the point of smiling’. It’s all yellow, except for a line of purple hills. A pale and golden yellow. I find it odd that I saw it like that through the iron bars of a cell.”

“It is only when I stand painting before my easel that I feel in any way alive.”

“What fascinates me much, much more than it does all the others in my trade – is the portrait, the modern portrait … I should like to do portraits which will appear as revelations to people in a hundred years’ time. In other words, I am not trying to achieve this by photographic likeness but by rendering our impassioned expressions, by using our modern knowledge and appreciation of colour as a means of rendering and exalting character.”

Portrait of Mademoiselle Ravoux

“I’ve done the portrait of Mr. Gachet with a melancholy expression, which might well seem like a grimace to those who see it … Sad but gentle, yet clear and intelligent, that is how many portraits ought to be done … There are modern heads that may be looked at for a long time, and that may perhaps be looked back on with longing a hundred years later.”

Portrait of Dr. Gachet

“I have found in him a complete friend, even something like a new brother. I think that we must not count on Dr. Gachet at all. First of all, he is sicker than I am … Now when one blind man leads another blind man, don’t they both fall into the ditch?”


In September 1889, at an exhibition by the Société des Artistes Indépendants, two paintings by Van Gogh, Starry Night Over the Rhone and Irises, were submitted by Theo. They were compared favorably with the recent works by Serat, Signac, and Toulouse-Lautrec. One art critic wrote: ‘His Irises violently shred their purple parts over their lath-like leaves. Mr van Gogh is a diverting colourist even in eccentricities like his Starry Night: on the sky, criss-crossed in coarse basketwork with a flat brush, cones of white, pink and yellow, stars, have been applied straight from the tube; orange triangles are being swept away in the river, and near some moored boats strangely sinister beings hasten by.’

Red Vineyard

In November 1889, at an exhibition in Brussels which Van Gogh was invited to participate, his painting, The Red Vineyard, was purchased. It is the only know painting to be sold (i.e., officially recorded) during his lifetime. Vincent was now beginning to receive admiration and recognition for his work from within the community of other impressionist artists. Yet his fame only came posthumously. 

Debatably his last Self Portrait (1889)

1890. At age 37, shortly before his death, he wrote: “Well, I have risked my life for my work, and it has cost me half my reason.”

Wheat Field with Crows

Wheat Field with Crows is believed to be Vincent Van Gogh’s final painting before being shot in the stomach, either by himself or by others, and dying two days later. His final words to his brother who was at his bedside: “La tristesse durera toujours” [The sadness will last forever].

Vincent Van Gogh, Eugené Delacroix, Adeline Ravoux, Dr. Paul Gachet