Oil on Canvas
These are my thoughts on looking at a very famous painting – not an informed critique. In fact, I’m going to say very little, if anything, about the artistic qualities of this piece. However, maybe it will provide you with a fresh perspective, or if you haven't looked at it properly, an incentive to do so.
Don't just look at it on a computer screen – buy or view a print, if you can't get to the original (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam - May 2004).
This artist’s style is so famous and distinctive that it is very easy to only see the words “Van Gogh” in your mind. So first, please, ignore the name and take the time to look at this purely as a product of the artist's thoughts.
The first time I saw this, I just looked straight through it, and saw nothing meaningful at all. The mood you're in could well make the difference of how this picture affects you, if at all...
I want you to imagine him making this. It’s not a large canvas (65.5 x 50.5 cm), but the detail and finish shows he spent a considerable amount of energy working at this. I think he was looking at his own eyes for quite a long time – and how they are now is how he wanted them to look. Spend some time staring into his eyes, & you'll wonder how you ever missed it... The eyes are both hollow and glazed; they see everything, but feel nothing. Van Gogh has uncovered part of his soul here, and it's not pretty.
Shift your gaze ever so slightly down, taking in the eye shadows on his sick, white skin. Amid the paleness there are spots of deep red - in the lips, on and inside his ear, and both between and above the eyes. This contrast gives flesh and blood to his portrait, bringing it to a grim sort of life - almost gothic.
We move down to the lower part of the face. The lines of his cheekbones and compression of the lips give rise to utter dejection, and hopelessness. The shape of his moustache reinforces the mouth that looks like it will never smile.
This portrait was one of the last he painted in Paris. When he left, he was “totally broken, very sick and virtually an alcoholic”. His own words, in a letter to Paul Gauguin.
The only relief, the only joy there was here, was in the making of the work itself. His intensity, his feverishness, is focused on his canvas.
I wish I could paint like this.