This, the last of Van Gogh's self-portraits and one of the greatest, was painted only months before his death.
The compulsive, restless allover ornament of the background, recalling the work of mental patients, is for some physicians an evidence that the painting was done in a psychotic state. But the self-image of the painter shows a masterly control and power of observation, a mind perfectly capable of integrating the elements of its chosen activity. The background reminds us of the rhythms of The Starry Night, which the portrait resembles also in the dominating bluish tone of the work. The flowing, pulsing forms of the background, schemata of sustained excitement, are not just ornament, although related to the undulant forms of the decorative art of the 1890s; they are unconfined by a fixed rhythm or pattern and are a means of intensity, rather, an overflow of the artist's feelings onto his surroundings. Beside the powerful modeling of the head and bust, so compact and weighty, the wall pattern appears a pale, shallow ornament. Yet the same rhythms occur in the figure and even in the head, which are painted in similar close-packed, coiling, and wavy lines. As we shift our attention from the man to his surroundings and back gain, the analogies are multiplied; the nodal points, or centers, in the background ornament begin to resemble more the eyes and ear and buttons of the figure.
|Photo of Self Portrait, 1889 by Vincent Van Gogh|
In all this turmoil and congested eddying motion, we sense the extraordinary firmness of the painter's hand. The acute contrasts of the reddish beard and the surrounding blues and green, the probing draftsmanship, the liveness of the tense features, the perfectly ordered play of breaks, variations, and continuities, the very stable proportioning of the areas of the work - all these point to a superior mind, however disturbed and apprehensive the artist's feeling.