Vincent Van Gogh, considered to be one of the most legendary painters in recorded history, was well known for his penchant for self-portraiture. A prolific artist, he drew and painted himself more than 43 times between 1886 and 1889. He said of portrait studies, “The only thing in painting that excites me to the depths of my soul, and which makes me feel the infinite more than anything else.”
To his sister he wrote: “I should like to paint portraits which appear after a century to people living then as apparitions. By which I mean that I do not endeavor to achieve this through photographic resemblance, but my means of our impassioned emotions – that is to say using our knowledge and our modern taste for color as a means of arriving at the expression and the intensification of the character.”
Here, Erin DeSimone shares a short history of Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear, one of Van Gogh’s most famous portraits, and her interpretation of the work:
As the story has been relayed, at 11:30 on a Sunday evening, Vincent van Gogh called Brothel No. 1 and asked for a woman named Rachel. When he met Rachel outside of the establishment, he handed her his ear and said, “Guard this object with your life.” Van Gogh disappeared until he was found on his bed, the following morning, at the point of death. As a consequence of this event, though the specifics remain a mystery, Van Gogh’s working relationship with Paul Gauguin ended, Van Gogh was taken to the Arles Hospital, and Van Gogh painted this self-portrait, in the hospital, two weeks later.
This patient portrait is special because the patient painted it, a patient self-portrait. Van Gogh used this self-portrait to convey a message to his doctors at the Arles Hospital, and to his doctor-like brother, Theo Van Gogh. In this self-portrait Vincent van Gogh depicts himself wearing a winter coat and fur hat. This was a deliberate stylistic choice by Van Gogh to prove that he was keeping his body warm, as his doctors advised. Likewise, he depicts his window slightly ajar, to evidence that he is absorbing fresh air, also as his doctors recommended. And, he paints himself wearing a bandage that would have been soaked in camphor. This medicinal symbol, a bandage soaked in a calming drug, is understood to be a plea to Van Gogh’s doctors in Arles; Van Gogh wanted to show that he was accepting his prescribed medicine and thus, had a renewed mental status, that warranted a release from his confinement.
Van Gogh exemplifies his sense of perspective in this painting when he illustrates his right ear as bandaged; in reality, Van Gogh’s left ear was injured, therefore this is a mirror image of himself. Though Van Gogh rejected the rigid artistic study at the Antwerp Academy in 1885, this use of perspective verifies his Realist artistic skills.
In this work, Van Gogh paints himself in Yellow House; while he is in the Arles Hospital, he is dreaming of his former home with Gauguin and of their vision for an artist community in Arles. He includes a canvas that is obscured by his body, to his right. And to his left, Van Gogh paints in a version of Torakiyo’s woodblock, Geishas in a Landscape (1870-1880). Van Gogh shifts the original image, so that it appears as if the heron is stabbing his ear. Perhaps this inclusion of violence is a subtle suggestion at the nature of his ear wound.
Though this self-portrait has come to be considered an image of Van Gogh as a ‘poor fighter’, as a man who could command colors to generate emotion but was himself emotionally unstable, Theo van Gogh thought differently. Theo supported his younger brother for the entirety of Vincent’s life. Theo provided Van Gogh with canvas, paints, and encouragement; thus, it is significant that Theo considered this self-portrait to evoke a ‘poor sick man.’ Vincent van Gogh recognized how his sunken cheeks, distant eyes, and pale complexion, are all exemplified by the impasto, yellow and green, strokes employed in this powerful piece; his brother Theo, rather than the Arles doctors, noticed these sickly qualities in the painting, which suggests that Theo understood the suffering in this patient portrait. In this Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, Van Gogh deliberately uses medical tropes to display himself as a complacent patient, but he employs color and painterly strokes to stay true to his artist identity.