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Self-Portrait. 1889. By Vincent Van Gogh


The Desperate Man. By Gustave Courbet. 1843–45.

We go through life constantly leaving parts of ourselves along the way. A picture, a note - anything to remind posterity that we too walked these streets. Sometimes, these marks are a form of self-expression. Like fingerprints all over something handled, we find ourselves in everything we create.  A singer incorporates his/her life experiences into their lyrics; a writer writes about themselves - possibly disguised behind unfamiliar places and names but telling a story all the same; you take a selfie every once in a while. Invariably we tell our stories in whichever way we can.

Say you stumbled upon a diary while taking a walk. Page after page, you construct the image and personality of its owner in your mind. With the notes and clues scribbled, you find out the author's hidden truths, thought forms and experiences. This is what happens when you look at some self-portraits. What hangs before you is ,in essence, the story of a life told in colour.

Initially starting with portraits of royal families and prominent people in society, painters soon began making portraits of ‘common men.’ Over time this interest drifted onto the artists themselves and so many painters made themselves their own subjects. The concept of self-portraits is said to date back to about 1500 AD during the Renaissance. With better ways of creating mirrors at that time, it was easier for artists to attempt making replicas of themselves on canvas.


One can imagine how painting a picture of one’s self was a good way to keep memories or follow the process of aging before cameras and photography. These paintings served more than just records of things on the outside. Through a self-portrait, the artist records an emotion, experience, a thought and more interestingly how the artist sees him/herself. Although it may seem narcissistic, a self-portrait is introspection of some sort. We get to see much deeper into the mind of the artist. They can reveal what the artist was, what they are or what they aspire to be.

If you’ve already read the Starry Night review (if not, you can do so here), you probably have a fair idea about the life of Van Gogh and so the mood of his self-portrait would probably make sense. The composition imposes on the viewer an impression of a troubled man attempting to look composed. This candid glimpse into his psyche reveals how Van Gogh poured his internal crisis on canvas.


An interesting sort of dichotomy is also evident - the painting carries such great intensity yet has a palette of cool colours.

His red fiery hair and beard draw you into his face. Sharp brushstrokes outline the contours of his face as well as his almost stern expression. His eyes, apparently transfixed on you, seem like the eyes of an anxious person lost in thought. His signature energy-filled spirals run all over the background as well as on his jacket. Volume is demonstrated in his jacket by thicker brushstrokes of looser spirals. His white shirt has lighter boundaries and softens into his skin. This is almost a diary entry of a sort. Here you get to see Van Gogh through his eyes.


Self-Portrait. 1889. By Vincent Van Gogh

Another evident feature his self-portraits reveal is growth. He is said to have painted about 40 self-portraits. With each one, a different element is introduced which revealed his evolution as an artist. The process of creating is very dynamic - a maze of some sort. The artist is often blindly taking different directions, discovering new techniques, inspiration, styles and even subjects. It makes sense that to be an artist one has to allow one’s self to evolve when the need arises.

One can imagine how subtly terrifying it must be to attempt painting one's self. Of course, nothing goes wrong if you screw it up, but we tend to have certain fixed ideas about ourselves that are difficult to bend. Although we are constantly evolving, our perspective of ourselves hardly changes.  Over time, we may retrospectively notice some growth but if asked to paint say 50 self-portraits (supposing one had the necessary skill and time), it would not be surprising if most are exact replicas.


It's very impressive, therefore, to see this growth manifested through self-portraits. Being able to subject this fixed and finite idea of who he was or what he looked like to the fluid nature of art and its techniques is something Van Gogh achieved through these paintings. Not clinging to a specific way he assumed he should look or come across, he subjected the image of himself to a myriad of evolving art processes and moods.

Aside growth in inspiration and style, growth in skill is also developed through self-portraits. It creates the opportunity to get better at accurately depicting the human form. With your brush, a palette and canvas ready, the mirror before you provides your most accessible and available model - yourself. When Van Gogh could not afford to hire models, he mainly used himself. To him, being able to depict himself accurately meant he would be able to paint others as well.


In a letter to his brother, Theo, he wrote: I purposely bought a mirror good enough to enable me to work from my image in default of a model, because if I can manage to paint the colouring of my own head, which is not to be done without difficulty, I shall likewise be able to paint the heads of other good souls, men and women.

The second portrait, The Desperate Man, draws you into the wide-opened eyes of a man in some sort of frenzy. One of the most impressive aspects of this composition is Courbet’s use of light and shadows to create emphasis. Tearing at his hair, we clearly see the tension in his arms as the boundaries of the various muscles bask in shadows. His right hand has a firmer grip on his dark hair.


Courbet lived in a period during which paintings had to be of historically significant subjects or events. He, however, was more interested in painting about everyday life and peasants. He also often painted these on really large canvas which were usually reserved for more important historical subjects. This conflict between his ideas and the norm made him a desperate man in some sense. Not willing to compromise, he would later be recognized as one of the pioneers of a genre of art called Realism.


The Desperate Man. By Gustave Courbet. 1843–45.

To him, only things visible and tangible should be incorporated in a painting. He believed that every moment in history had to be reproduced by artists of that time and so found little interest in historical paintings. In his words: The history of an era is finished with that era itself and with those of its representatives who have expressed it…The real artists are those who pick up their age exactly at the point to which it has been carried by preceding times. To go backward is to do nothing; it is pure loss; it means that one has neither understood nor profited by the lessons of the past.’ Courbet also painted many other self-portraits and from these the story of his life could be told.

To many people, the ability to paint a self-portrait is a sort of milestone reserved for only those certain about their artistic prowess. Actually, this form of introspection is one that only requires courage. The artist must simply be able to look at themselves in a mirror or photograph and replicate exactly what he/she sees and feels. Here the only things that matter are the artist and the canvas. Between these two, a dialogue takes place - an honest expression of one’s self.

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