The Morgan Stanley Exhibition: Van Gogh. Self- Portraits opens to the public 3 February – 8 May 2022.
The self-portraits were painted only one week apart at the asylum, in late August and early September 1889, but show Van Gogh in very different lights – the first was painted as he was still in the midst of the severe mental health crisis that had struck him in mid-July, while the second was created as he was slowly recovering. Indeed, Van Gogh made clear that being able to paint was key to his healing process. Shown together for the first time in over a century at The Courtauld Gallery, the self-portraits provide a unique insight into Van Gogh’s changing psychological condition and the way he viewed himself.
Van Gogh’s first major mental health crisis occurred on 23 December 1888, when he cut off a large part of his left ear, following a dispute with his friend and fellow artist Paul Gauguin. Following a series of relapses, on 8 May 1889, Van Gogh voluntarily admitted himself to the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum, located in a former monastery close to Saint-Rémy, France. He stayed there for a year, during which his mental health fluctuated significantly. Fearing that doctors would not allow him to paint, Van Gogh asked his brother Theo to write to the asylum on his behalf, stating: “working on my paintings is quite necessary to my recovery”.
Confined indoors without any models other than himself, but still wanting to practice painting figures, Van Gogh turned to self-portraiture.
Painted in late August 1889, Self-Portrait, on loan from The National Museum of Art in Oslo, reveals the way in which Van Gogh did not shy away from confronting his mental state. In a letter to his brother, Van Gogh described the portrait as “an attempt from when I was ill”. While the composition and sideways glance are familiar, this representation has a distinctly sombre feel, with matte, muddy colours and mottled brushstrokes rendering Van Gogh’s features less recognisable. His hair is short, his beard patchy, and his green eyes are dull.
In close succession in the first week of September 1889, feeling recovered, Van Gogh painted another self-portrait, the execution of which shows a painter in full command of his powers. Van Gogh’s depiction confronts himself, as well as the viewer, in contrast to the skittish, sideways glance of the Oslo self-portrait painted just one week earlier. Varied and dynamic brushwork, precise contrast between red hair and white flesh, and a careful selection of blue pigments attest to its careful planning. Significantly, he portrays himself as a painter at work, a rare occurrence in his oeuvre, wearing a painter’s smock holding brushes and a palette. On loan from The National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, this self-portrait shows Van Gogh’s determination to return to painting after weeks of torment, and look at himself anew following the debilitating mental health crisis he suffered that summer.
Dr Karen Serres, curator of the exhibition, says: “Seeing these works together will be an incredibly moving experience, the embodiment of Van Gogh’s resilience and courage in the face of personal adversity. It shows what painting meant to him and to his recovery, and how he was able to create, in the most difficult of circumstances, works that remain incredibly
powerful over a century later.”
Dr. Karen Serres, curator of the exhibition, says: “Seeing these works together will be an incredibly moving experience, the embodiment of Van Gogh’s resilience and courage in the face of personal adversity. It shows what painting meant to him and to his recovery, and how he was able to create, in the most difficult of circumstances, works that remain incredibly powerful over a century later.”
Van Gogh gave the Oslo self-portrait to friends during a visit to Arles in January 1890, while the Washington DC self-portrait was sent to his brother in Paris. The two paintings have not been together since they were first made in his workroom at the asylum at Saint-Rémy, and are presented together for the first time in over 130 years at The Courtauld.
This landmark exhibition – the first in the Morgan Stanley series of major exhibitions staged in The Courtauld’s newly refurbished Denise Coates Exhibition Galleries – brings together for the very first time an outstanding group of 16 Van Gogh self-portraits to explore the full range of the artist’s most enduring and personal subject matter.
Two self-portraits by Vincent van Gogh, that have not been seen together since leaving the artist’s workroom in the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in the south of France, have been reunited for the first time in over 130 years as part of an unprecedented exhibition of Van Gogh’s self-portraits at The Courtauld Gallery.
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