10 Self-Portraits of Vincent Van Gogh You Should Know

Vincent van Gogh painted no fewer than 35 self-portraits during his short but prolific career, offering an insight into his life and state of mind.

May 21, 2024By Lisa Barham, MA & BA Fine Art

van gogh self portraits you should know


Van Gogh (1853–1890) considered portraiture to be one of the highest forms of art, and painting himself allowed him to practice his skills as an artist. His self-portraits were a testing ground where he could try out new techniques and styles and were sometimes painted on the back of other finished paintings. Practicing self-portraiture also had other benefits as it was cheaper and more reliable than hiring a model. Van Gogh’s astonishingly high output of self-portraits charts his developing style and provides a window into the mind of a troubled artist.


Van Gogh’s Early Self-Portraits

van gogh self portrait 1886
Self-Portrait with Felt Hat by Vincent van Gogh, 1886. Source: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam


Van Gogh was an extraordinarily prolific artist, creating over 2,000 works in a career that lasted just over a decade. All his known self-portraits were painted in the last four years of his life. Few other artists have produced so many self-portraits in such a short period. The most comparable is Rembrandt, whom Van Gogh greatly admired, who made almost a hundred self-portraits over his 40-year career.


Most of Van Gogh’s self-portraits date from his time in Paris, which was a formative period in his development as an artist. The earliest were painted in 1886 and are notable for their dark palette reminiscent of traditional Dutch portraiture, particularly the work of Rembrandt. Self-Portrait with Felt Hat is typical of Van Gogh’s earlier style. The artist shows himself dressed smartly in black, the only color on the canvas coming from his fiery red beard and the backdrop that is painted in a similar hue.


The Iconic Straw Hat

van gogh self portrait with straw hat
Self-Portrait with Straw Hat by Vincent van Gogh, 1887. Source: Detroit Institute of Arts


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During his time in Paris, Van Gogh became acquainted with the work of the Impressionists and was deeply influenced by their use of color. His work took on a much lighter appearance, a significant step towards his signature colorful paintings for which he is best known. In the summer of 1887, Van Gogh was spending a lot of his time painting outdoors. He began depicting himself wearing a yellow straw hat, an essential accessory for artists working out in the sun and the item of clothing with which he is now most associated. The bright yellow, a color prominent in many of his paintings, contrasts with the blue of the painter’s smock that he often showed himself wearing. Van Gogh exchanged his Self-Portrait with Straw Hat for a painting by his friend and fellow artist Emile Bernard.


A Different Side to Van Gogh

van gogh self portrait grey hat 1887
Self-Portrait by Vincent van Gogh, 1887 Source: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam


Van Gogh didn’t always depict himself the same, and his self-portraits are notable for their variety. One of the most obvious differences is the change in style and color, but he also liked to depict himself in various guises. In a self-portrait from the summer of 1887, he presents himself as a gentleman in an elegant suit and hat, a marked difference to his images of himself as a poor painter. He even changed his physical characteristics in this portrait, painting his naturally green eyes blue to match the blue-grey tones of the painting, an unusual color palette for Van Gogh.


The artist believed that the same person supplies material for very diverse portraits, an idea that is reflected in his varied images of himself. He also wrote in a letter to his brother Theo: “People say – and I’m quite willing to believe it – that it’s difficult to know oneself – but it’s not easy to paint oneself either.”


Vincent or Theo?

van gogh self portrait or portrait theo van gogh
Self-Portrait or Portrait of Theo van Gogh by Vincent van Gogh, 1887 Source: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam


Another portrait painted in mid-1887 was long thought to be a self-portrait. In 2011, research into the painting concluded that it was actually a portrait of Vincent’s younger brother Theo. However, more recently that theory has been questioned. While the paintings are similar, subtle differences in the physical characteristics of the sitters can be seen. However, the fact that the brothers are known to have looked alike and Van Gogh’s habit of sometimes deviating from reality creates confusion about the identity of the sitter. Experts now believe there is no decisive evidence to state with accuracy which of the brothers is actually portrayed and the painting is now known as Self-Portrait or Portrait of Theo Van Gogh.


Evolution of Style

van gogh self portrait with grey felt hat
Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat by Vincent van Gogh, 1887 Source: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam


Van Gogh was influenced by the art he encountered in Paris, including Pointillism. Van Gogh’s contemporary George Seurat (1859–1891) was a pioneer of this technique that involves applying paint to the canvas in a series of dots. Van Gogh expanded on this idea and used short lines of color, evident in his Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat. The style, particularly where the lines form a halo-like circle around his head, indicates the early workings of what would become his unique use of thick lines of color and swirling brushstrokes. Along with its bold brushwork, the painting was an experiment in color. Van Gogh placed stripes of paint in complementary tones next to each other, with blue and orange in the background and red and green in his face. His green eyes and striking red beard lent themselves well to this color play.


Self-Portrait as a Painter

van gogh self portrait as a painter
Self-Portrait as a Painter by Vincent van Gogh, 1887-88. Source: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam


Vincent created Self-Portrait as a Painter at the end of his two years in Paris. It is one of the few self-portraits in which he depicts himself as an artist. The difference in color and style to the portraits he made when he arrived in Paris is stark. The bright palette and thick brushstrokes set it apart from his early works. He used complementary colors applied side by side to intensify them, such as the orange of his beard next to the blue of his smock. He holds a palette covered in splodges of unmixed paint, signifying his position as a modern painter.


The painting is a culmination of everything he had learned during his stay in Paris, but it also hints at his tiredness. The city had exhausted him. In a letter to his sister, Van Gogh described portraying himself as such: “Wrinkles in forehead and around the mouth, stiffly wooden, a very red beard, quite unkempt and sad.” Shortly after painting this self-portrait, Van Gogh left Paris for Arles in the South of France.


A Dedication to Gauguin

van gogh self portrait dedicated to gauguin
Self-Portrait Dedicated to Paul Gauguin by Vincent van Gogh, 1888. Source: Harvard Art Museum


Van Gogh and his artist friends often exchanged works, as well as regular letters. After he moved from Paris to Arles, Van Gogh continued to correspond with Paul Gauguin and Bernard who were working together in Brittany. He asked his friends to paint portraits of each other. Instead, they responded with self-portraits, each including a sketch of the other in the background, which they sent to Van Gogh. In exchange, Van Gogh sent a portrait of himself in the guise of a Japanese monk, inscribed To my friend Paul Gauguin. Japanese art was one of his big influences, and he described the process of creating the image in letters to his brother Theo, who was also interested in Japanese prints.


Van Gogh’s Chair

van gogh chair painting
Van Gogh’s Chair by Vincent van Gogh, 1888. Source: The National Gallery, London


During their time living and working together in Arles, Van Gogh and Gauguin made portraits of each other. Van Gogh also painted a more unusual pair of portraits: Gauguin’s Chair (1888) and Van Gogh’s Chair (1888). Each is representative of the artists’ characters. Van Gogh’s chair is basic and functional, made of unpolished wood with a straight back and no armrests, and sits on a bare terracotta floor. On the seat lies Van Gogh’s pipe and tobacco pouch. The simple nature of the piece of furniture alludes to Van Gogh’s interest in the peasant way of life. In contrast, Gauguin’s is an elegant and comfortable-looking walnut chair with armrests. Van Gogh had furnished the Yellow House in Arles himself, including with these chairs. He had intended for the rooms to reflect the characters of their residents.


An Allusion to Illness

van gogh self portrait with bandaged ear painting
Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear by Vincent van Gogh, 1889. Source: The Courtauld, London


Van Gogh is famed as much for his personal life as he is for his art. It is well known that the artist struggled with his mental health, issues that ultimately led to him severing his own ear and subsequently admitting himself to an asylum. Only three of his self-portraits allude to his illness, two of which depict him shortly after his self-mutilation. He painted Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear shortly after he was discharged from the hospital.


Van Gogh had thrown himself back into painting in the face of hardship. Not only was he recovering from his wound, but he was also now living alone following Gauguin’s departure, and facing the fact that his hopes for creating a Studio in the South would come to nothing. Van Gogh shows himself wearing a fur-lined cap, evidence of the cold and harsh conditions under which he was working, his ear heavily bandaged. In the background he included a canvas on an easel and a Japanese print, from which he drew inspiration, to demonstrate his will to continue working.


Van Gogh’s Last Self-Portraits

van gogh last self portrait
Self-Portrait by Vincent van Gogh, 1889. Source: Musée d’Orsay, Paris


During his time at the asylum at Saint-Rémy, Van Gogh mostly focused on painting nature outdoors. However, he also created four self-portraits during his stay, the last he would make. The version at the Washington National Gallery of Art is a rare example of Van Gogh presenting himself as a working artist. The bright blues and vivid oranges, along with the dynamic brushwork of this piece, create an intense image and contrast with the self-portrait he painted with a palette of gray blues, shown above.


The soft colors emit a sense of calm, whereas the swirling background retains a feeling of turbulence. These signature swirling brushstrokes typify Van Gogh’s unique style for which he is best known today. He presents himself in a smart suit, viewed from his right side, in a mirror image, so as not to display his mutilated ear. This is probably the last self-portrait he ever painted. Less than a year after he completed this piece, he died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, aged just 37.

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By Lisa BarhamMA & BA Fine ArtLisa is a contributing writer with a background in art. She holds a BA and MA in Fine Art from the University of Kent, and has worked at Tate Modern and the National Gallery, London. She now writes full time whilst travelling and exploring new countries and cultures across the globe.