Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette, 1885 by Vincent Van Gogh

Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette, 1885 by Vincent Van Gogh
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Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette is in many ways the key Antwerp picture. Van Gogh was mocking the procedure in drawing classes, where a skeleton invariably served as the basis of anatomical studies, considered by the teachers to be the artist's indispensable aid in figuring out physical proportions and anatomical structure. The lifelessness of the skeleton represented the very opposite of what van Gogh wanted a picture to express. With the burning cigarette jammed in its teeth, the skeleton, though still nothing but dead bones, has acquired a grotesquely funny hint of life.

The painting is less amusing if we bear in mind van Gogh's feeling that he needed to make his outer appearance more attractive. He had just had major dental treatment. In Nuenen he had painted no selfportraits, but in Paris he tackled the task head-on - and the reason for this may well have been that van Gogh had recently acquired a touch of the upright citizen's vanity, and that he did not think himself presentable until his gap-teeth had been fixed. On the other hand, of course, if he now saw himself as a man about town, he would have developed the self-confidence needed to think he merited a self-portrait (and first some improvement of his facial appearance, which was sunken and weary). As Van Gogh mentioned in one of his letter, his health was not in the best of conditions:

The doctor tells me I absolutely have to keep my strength up...and until I have built it up I am to take it easy with my work. But now I have made things worse by smoking, which I did because one doesn't feel the emptiness of one's stomach then."

With this in mind we can see the skull as van Gogh's first self-portrait - a cynical, merciless comment on an unkempt and unattractive appearance that had been a sign of solidarity with the peasants back in Nuenen but was now an embarrassment and a problem in the city.