It’s not hard to recognize a tormented soul in this face: van Gogh after the infamous incident of cutting off his earlobe. The tortured, retired and introspective gaze leaves no doubt as to the state of mind of the subject.
Yet despite the surfacing inner pain, this countenance and the self-portrait as a whole communicate, and even impose, an infinite tranquility and peace of mind. We witness only the aftermath of the breakdown; the bandage has been applied, the medicine taken — the artist regained his faculties and was able to paint again. The price paid for this recuperation transpires from the eyes, but the quality of the “acquisition” is evident throughout: assured artistic skill that enabled this very painting. This unusual exchange raises many questions as to the relation between madness and creativity — questions that continue to fascinate civilization till this day.
Van Gogh possessed an unusual, distinctive physiognomy: he boasted a very high and broad forehead but a relatively small chin. While the former may imply a strong intellectual capacity, the latter, along with the chiseled, almost feminine lips, may betray emotional refinement, susceptibility to mood swings, or even hysteria. In a way, the imbalance of the physiognomy can be seen as a reflection of van Gogh’s personality. Eventually, the portrait demonstrates a similar mix of strengths and weaknesses, of artistic resilience and emotional fragility; it’s a technically confident and calm execution, which presents an emotionally broken man.
There is an interesting invention (perhaps an expressionistic streak): the green of the overcoat travels on to the eyes. Here the green color combines symbolic and literal meanings: generally signifying poison, it refers particularly to van Gogh’s preferred kind — absinthe, an alcoholic beverage known for its distinctive green hue.
The psychosomatic effects of absinthe became infamous since then, and today are sought for by artists who seek a boost of inspiration. Rightly or wrongly, van Gogh’s personal tragedy continues to influence artists in more ways than one.
*this article has been edited at a later date