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.
Self portrait is a motif that Van Gogh always returns to, as artists have always returned to their beloved themes - Monet his The Waterlily Pond, Cezanne his Mont Sainte-Victoire. During his lifetime, Van Gogh created more than 30 self portraits.
Self Portrait, 1889 is both more confident and more aggressive. It is a surly, almost rude and choleric face - as if the sitter had had enough of examining his features for signs of madness. There are deep creases by the nose and cheekbones, the eyebrows are thick and prominent, the corners of the mouth have turned down: it is the face of a man with no more time for friendliness. The snaking and swirling lines that denote the background are used for the person and clothing of the artist, too, and the restless rejection of harmony and tranquillity to which these lines attest sets the keynote of the subject's facial features: the need to deform and remake has created a new disorder in his physiognomy. The face is not so much meant to be coarse or angry as full of vitality, of the sense of the moment. Painter and sitter being one and the same person, there is (as it were) no need for the model to keep still. The picture is not a pretty pose nor a realistic record; rather, the face van Gogh is here setting down on canvas is one that has seen too much jeopardy, too much turmoil, to be able to keep its agitation and trembling under control. It is not, in fact, an unfriendly face. This portrait articulates vitality. And the approach is plainly incapable of idealistic posing.