Healing and Rebuilding Identity: Van Gogh’s Self-Portraiture

By Dr Karen Serres, Curator of Paintings, The Courtauld
Published 12 August 2022


Courtauld alumna Dr Karen Serres, curator of The Morgan Stanley Exhibition: Van Gogh. Self-Portraits (3 February – 8 May 2022) at The Courtauld Gallery, reflects on how mental health is often discussed in relation to Vincent van Gogh.

The conflation of Vincent van Gogh’s art and his biography started shortly after his death in 1890. Critics at the time became interested in defining the quintessential artist not as a professional like any other but as someone outside of society, someone who struggled for their art. Van Gogh (1853–1890) – and, later, Edvard Munch (1863–1944) – fit their criteria perfectly. Both artists wrote insightfully about their mental health difficulties and sought medical help in psychiatric hospitals. Munch did include images that haunted him in his work, especially in the 1890s, as a way to come to terms with his anxieties on universal themes of the human condition, such as rejection and death. That was not the case for Van Gogh, although his paintings have often been interpreted retroactively through the lens of his death by suicide, and read as expressing his troubles. Only recently has the misleading designation of ‘cursed’ or ‘mad’ long applied to the two men started to be redressed and nuanced. The result is a better understanding of their artistic approach and ambition.

Vincent Van Gogh (1853–1890), Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889, The Courtauld, London (Samuel Courtauld Trust) © The Courtauld

‘Van Gogh painted not to express his torment and difficulties but to overcome them…’

Despite running counter to his own letters and to the carefully constructed nature of his powerful paintings, the image of a tortured Van Gogh compulsively throwing paint onto a canvas has been widely disseminated in biographies and film, and is difficult to dispel. In fact, Van Gogh painted not to express his torment and difficulties but to overcome them. As he wrote to his brother Theo, ‘if I recover… it’ll be because I’ve cured myself by working, which fortifies the will and consequently allows these mental weaknesses less hold’. Both Van Gogh and Munch set up studios in their hospital rooms and painted powerful self-portraits to regain their sense of identity after moments of crisis. Despite what early 20th century critics argued, art was not the source of their struggles (among other things, both men had a history of mental illness in their family) but the solution…

To read the full article Art as Solace: Exploring the Powerful Relationship between Art and Mental Wellbeing, please view the latest edition of The Courtauld News, Issue 44