NATIONAL GALLERY, Self Portrait By Van Gogh

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Of the many works by Vincent van Gogh that you can see at the National Gallery, this self-portrait is undoubtedly the most famous.

Van Gogh painted around 36 self-portraits, so much so that he became one of the most easily recognizable faces of all the artists from the nineteenth century, with his red hair and beard.


This was his last and was painted by the artist in a French psychiatric hospital, which he had checked himself into. In fact, just a few months before he had severed his own earlobe following an argument with the famous painter, Paul Gauguin, while suffering a psychotic breakdown, and subsequently gave it to a prostitute that both painters frequented.


The Dutch painter suffered from severe mental problems, likely due to a bipolar disorder, which was aggravated by his excessive use of alcohol and his hard life. Just a year later, in 1890, he committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest, at just 37 years old.


In the mere ten years spanning his career–he started painting full time only from 1881 onwards–he painted over 2,000 canvases, the majority of which were completed in the last two years alone, as he believed that painting was the only cure for his illness.


His distinctive style, unrealistic colors, brush strokes and the evident spatulate, reminiscent of the typical distortion of hallucinations, can be linked to both his psychological state and to French art at the time, which was moving away from Impressionism and focusing on the very colors to symbolize moods.


Van Gogh was not successful during his lifetime and was supported financially by his younger brother, Theo, an art dealer, with whom he was very close. In fact, 600 letters sent to Theo have been found, along with 40 replies, and it is believed that it is no coincidence that Van Gogh mutilated his ear as soon as he found out about the birth of his niece, fearing that his brother would distance himself from him.

This fondness was reciprocated, so much so that Theo died just a year later due to the anguish caused by his brother's death.


Interesting fact: until he was 26 years old, van Gogh–son of a protestant minister–was a missionary in the mines in southern Belgium, but was sent away because he sympathized too much with the miners and the poor, who he helped and cared for out of his own pocket.


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