Review: Van Gogh's Self-Portraits Reveal A Multitalented, Multifaceted Man

Van Gogh Self-Portraits, The Courtauld Gallery ★★★★★

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 27 months ago

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Last Updated 02 February 2022

Review: Van Gogh's Self-Portraits Reveal A Multitalented, Multifaceted Man Van Gogh Self-Portraits, The Courtauld Gallery 5
Come face to face with the master. Photo: Fergus Carmichael.

Flaming red hair and beard, intense wild eyes, sharp angular features.

There's no mistaking Vincent van Gogh's striking visage, but there are some surprises in this stonking collection at the Courtauld Gallery's comeback exhibition, Van Gogh: Self Portraits.

The gallery's own painting (the very famous one with the bandaged ear) has the expressive brushwork and vibrant colours we've come to expect from the Dutch painter. Yet the realist portrait that kicks off the show is a something of a shock; surely this sober, gloomy composition is the work of a fellow artist — not Van Gogh himself?

This gloomy work doesn't feel like Van Gogh at all. Image courtesy Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

In fact, the artist's style varies so much across these 16 self-portraits, and it comes as another shock to realise every one of them was created across just four years — those leading up to his death.

There's realism, pointillism and several impressionist renditions. Each face is unmistakably Van Gogh's yet he looks a different man in each one. Every painting is a reflection of his mood and wellbeing at the time; sometimes he is gaunt and sickly, elsewhere he is suave and confident.

One portrait, where he dons a straw hat, feels designed to give a lighter feel to his sharp features but there's never any escaping those intense eyes — a constant feature that pierces through you in every work.

The famous portrait of Van Gogh's chair can be considered a symbolic self-portrait too, given how closely he is associated with this piece of furniture (and his trademark pipe on the seat).

The self-portrait we're all familiar with. Image courtesy The Courtauld Gallery.

The show isn't all self-portraits; there's one of fellow painter Eugene Boch, suggesting that Van Gogh adopts a softer approach when not focussing on himself.

It's impressive that this exhibition pulls together so many self-portraits, from collections all across the world. In doing so, the Courtauld flaunts the sheer range of genres and emotions Van Gogh was capable of.

But it's about more than talent; it's the tragic story of his struggles with mental health, and his lack of success during his lifetime, that captivate art lovers the world over (and continues to create new ones). Everyone can identify with that constant struggle with self-worth.

This remarkable two-room exhibition is the closest we'll ever get to seeing inside both Van Gogh's wavering emotional state, and into the soul of a painter who remains one of the world's most loved artists.  

Van Gogh: Self Portraits is on at The Courtauld Gallery until 8 May. Tickets are £18 for adults.