Sunday, September 27, 2009

My Favorite Self-Portrait

This week in the van Gogh seminar I'm teaching, one of our topics was the self-portraiture Vincent created while living in Paris from March 1886-February 1888. Although he'd been an artist for five years by that point, only then did he experiment with this genre. Twenty-eight self-portraits he made during that time! And each one is different: we see Vincent the city-dweller in stylish hat and fine suit, Vincent the working man in craftsman's jacket and yellow straw hat, Vincent the artist with easel and palette. The series reminds us of the malleability of self-portraits; they are constructs, not necessarily attempts to represent the person as they actually are. In van Gogh's case, we have no photographs of him as an adult (except for one, where he's shown seated from the back) to make a comparison.

I asked the students to write their weekly response paper about the vagaries of self-portraiture and to pick their favorite. It's only fair that I reveal my favorite, too, so here it is: a version that belongs today to the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague. Painted earlier in the sequence rather than later, this portrait maintains the neutral palette of Vincent's Dutch days and possesses a more naturalistic style than some of the others that reveal strong pointillist and other avant-garde influences. It's one of the least innovative and experimental in the series.

So why do I like it? The eyes. In all his self-portraits, Vincent gives the eyes special expressiveness, and here I see (emphasis on *I* see, since others may see something different) a wistfulness behind the gaze. For all the tidiness of the suit he wears and the well-trimmed beard, there's an almost lost feeling, as if the sitter doesn't feel entirely at home in his clothes and his surroundings. At the point when Vincent painted this picture, he was still finding his way in Paris, in a sense seeking his true identity as an artist. Some of that seeking to me lies behind those eyes. When I was writing "Sunflowers," I kept a decent-sized reproduction of this picture (from an old calendar) close by, because the Vincent of my story is a seeker too. When I traveled to The Hague in 2007, I went to the Gemeentemuseum specifically to see it in person...but alas! It was not on view that day. I had to content myself with a bookmark from the gift-shop and a consolation slice of gooey cake from the cafe.

No comments: