Exercise in Analytical Ekphrasis – Van Gogh’s “Self-Portrait: Saint-Remy, 1889”



Vincent Van Gogh’s final self-portrait (“Self-Portrait: Saint-Remy, 1889” oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay) displays the fervor and fragility of his life through contrasting colors and brushstrokes. This was the last painting he created before committing suicide, and thusly it is poignant in both its context and form. His face takes center stage, both compositionally and chromatically. In this way, the eye of the viewer is magnetized to his auburn glow of fierce resolution. From the center, the swirls grow and the color changes starkly from red into a circuitous blue. The hypnotizing background, with its aforementioned calming tones, envelope Van Gogh and become one with his body: his suit is composed of an identical pattern to that of the background. The all-consuming swirls are characteristic of Van Gogh’s style: they allude to his desire for the infinite in nature. Like the infinity symbol, they wrap around one another in common hues and almost caress the subject with an eerie ease of consumption.

He uses his brush in a similar manner, building the energy from the eyes, which he draws tightly with attentive strokes. The energy spreads though the sporadic, quick dashes on his face, into the dark ripples of his jacket, and finally into the rolling turbulence of the glacier blue background. The circular strokes that spiral from him translate the voluminous capacity of his internal crisis. His eyes look into the distance and not at the viewer: his mind is entirely somewhere else. His gaze is strong and determined, as if he is calculating every thought amidst the wallowing background of blue. Thus his piercing eyes are not focused on what is happening outside, but rather inside his head.

Despite his fixed look, the painting is not entirely restrained. Instead, the leading tones of soft blue and sea green render the painting oddly calming. However, paired with his tawny mop of hair, the combination of colors emits a conflicting feeling to the viewer that perfectly conveys the psychological tone of the portrait. It is as if Van Gogh is the eye of his own storm, staring into the divine light if you will, and away from his reality of melancholic blue. With great contrast from the sea of blue-green swirls, the course, rigid red hues of his hair look as if they brimming the surface of water, clinging to air, to reason. His strong gaze pierces through the blue abyss as if he is taking a final look at reality.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s