The Story Behind the Van Gogh Self-Portrait with Bandage


Van Gogh's Self-Portrait with Bandage

Van Gogh Self-Portrait with Bandage

Before Vincent van Gogh cut off his right ear lobe and presented the bloody thing to a prostitute, self-mutilation never before characterized his self-destructive behavior.

In his escalating madness, van Gogh considered his act a trivial event and hoped Gauguin would not tell his benefactor brother, Theo, about it. Of course, Gauguin did tell Theo, and Theo rushed to Vincent.

While his ear healed, van Gogh marked the event in Self-Portrait with Pipe and Bandaged Ear, just 18 months before he shot himself in the chest on July 29, 1890.

The optimistic Vincent wrote to Theo, I hope I have just had simply an artist’s fit. To Gauguin he wrote, …after all, no evil exists in this best of worlds in which everything is for the best.

Smoking a Pipe

When you look at this self-portrait, you see simply a man smoking a pipe with artistic devices intended to draw your eye to his facial features, so that you hardly notice the bandage on the left.

Also prominent is the pipe and its smoke that makes an arc around his head and leads the eye out of the picture above the bandage.

Where is the emotion so clearly evident in all the other van Gogh self-portraits? This self-portrait seems more like a caricature of a man, rather than the artist whose self-portraits reveal him through eight stages of his life.

For example, in his last self-portrait, painted in late 1889-1890 in Saint Remy or Auvers, clearly, you see a madman willingly making efforts to control his madness.

Lack of Emotion

In this uncharacteristically unemotional self-portrait, Vincent paints eyes that lack emotion so completely that they appear vacant. Unlike the eyes in all his other self-portraits, these eyes lack the powerful van Gogh gaze.

These eyes don’t seem to want to engage the viewer at all like he didn’t want anyone to be able to read anything in them. Does he simply want us to know what a painter looks like when he slices off his ear lobe in a fit of passionate pique?

How significant are the bright, cheerful oranges that predominate this portrait, when compared to the blues predominating in all his other self-portraits? In this self-portrait, only the hat has a bit of blue with much more of the hat colored in black and dark lavender.

Mysteries in Madness

Madness holds many mysteries. When Vincent felt his madness taking over, one observer said he would try to cry, but the tears would not come.

No one really knows the source of van Gogh’s madness, while many have made guesses. One doctor who treated Vincent while he lived said that van Gogh’s madness was as unique as his art.

  1. Avatar of Andrew Sacks
    Andrew Sacks says

    Barbara, I always look forward to your latest work. Thank you for being a great asset to AngiesDiary!

  2. Avatar of Joyce White
    Joyce White says

    Barbara, great article. I always am interested in art work that comes out of madness and depression. I specialize myself in Ekphrasis Poetry. It is fun for me to pick a part an art work and answer my own questions, why are those affected with mental illness so creative? Most of us speak love and/or ego, but I think the mentally ill speak out of fear. From thought to paper we begin speaking in love.

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