Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Van Gogh: Drawing Figures, Portraits and Self-Portraits

Self-Portraits, 1887
Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)
Pencil, pen in dark-brown ink, on wove paper, 31 x 24 cm
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

This is a post from Van Gogh month back in February - when I focused on Van Gogh's drawing - which never got posted, so I'm trying to remedy that.
What fascinates me much, much more than does anything else in my metier is the portrait, the modern portrait.
Vincent Van Gogh
This post is about his approaches to drawing figures and creating portraits. I focused on Van Gogh's drawings back in February but inevitably a lot of the portraits and self-portraits are paintings. This post contains lots of links and you probably need to avoid it(!) if you like portraiture and/or Van Gogh and have something else you need to attend to. It's been rather difficult writing it too as I keep being distracted by his work and wanting to read all about it!

Drawing figures

In relation to drawing figures he developed his own way of drawing figures through a long process. He started by studying reproductions. He made copies using a volume of drawing exercises published by Goupil.
The Exercises came in two parts: first there were seventy pages of sketches from plaster models to be mastered and then the student went on to draw from famous paintings. Van Gogh tackled both sections repeatedly. (Van Gogh: The Complete Paintings (Taschen)
Van Gogh revered Millet paintings of working figures and reproductions of these that he saw made a particular impression on him and served as a model for much of his figure work. Van Gogh also subscribed to an illustrated periodial "The Graphic" which included illustrations of human figures.

He progressed to learning how to draw people from life however didn't have much money to employ or even contemplate a supply of professional models. So he used peasants as his models and, on occasion, developed a number of studies of old people in a home.

He was of the view that unless an artist intended to specialise in the nude that it was better to draw the clothed figure. He strongly believed in phsyiognomy and that a person's character was reflected in their features - which prompted him to search for people with strong features.
As part of his drawing studies he drew both heads and hands - but not together. Consequently when he first started drawing people as a whole their heads and hands were out of proportion to the rest of their bodies.

Letter 164 describes the problems Van Gogh had when drawing in a confined space and being too close to his models. He found that to gauge correct proportions he needed to step back from his subjects.

In November 1882 he produced a series of drawings of working class figures. His drawings tended to be in monochrome as he found colour too difficult to handle at this stage. In December 1883 Van Gogh moved to Nuenen where he drew and painted the local weavers and the primitive conditions in which they lived.

At the end of November 1885, Van Gogh went to Antwerp, where he attended lessons in drawing from plaster casts of classical statues at the Koninklijke Academie voor Schone Kunsten. He was also an active member of drawing clubs.

‘Painted portraits have a life of their own, something that comes from the roots of the painter’s soul, which a machine cannot touch. The more often people look at photos, the more they will feel this, it seems to me.’
Van Gogh Museum - reference to letter from Vincent to Theo Van Gogh
At one stage in his career, Van Gogh hoped to be a portrait painter in Paris. Van Gogh started to draw portraits (as opposed to figures) by drawing from photgraphs. Van Gogh's letters contained 205 references to portrait or portraits.
In the winter of 1884-1885, wishing to master figure painting, Van Gogh painted over forty studies of peasant heads. He chose models who conformed to his view of peasants, with ‘coarse, flat faces, low foreheads and thick lips, not sharp but full.’ He even exaggerated their rough features.
Van Gogh Museum
There's some evidence that he painted a number of portraits of people without payment as he wanted to develop a portfolio to enable him to establish a career as a portrait painter. What I find amazing is he continued to paint so many portraits despite the fact he neither succeeded in his aim or generated an income from it. Whether he continued because he was interested in the psychological aspects of painting souls rather than just features or because he believed portraiture to be a skill that all great painters mastered or just because he enjoyed painting portraits is difficult to say. I'm inclined to think it's probably all three.

These are links to Van Gogh's portrait paintings:
Like the old masters, he observed himself critically in a mirror. Painting oneself is not an innocuous act: it is a questioning which often leads to an identity crisis.

Thus he wrote to his sister: "I am looking for a deeper likeness than that obtained by a photographer." And later to his brother: "People say, and I am willing to believe it, that it is hard to know yourself. But it is not easy to paint yourself, either. The portraits painted by Rembrandt are more than a view of nature, they are more like a revelation".
Musee D'Orsay - works in focus
Van Gogh's paintings are splendid examples of self-portraiture. I've seen various different numbers given for the number of self portraits he painted and drew. There's a suggestion that he painted over43 in total and that he produced some 30 self-portraits as drawings and paintings in five years between 1885 and the end of his stay in Brabant period (1885) to the last year of his life at St Rémy and Auvers.
Van Gogh painted a total of some 35 self-portraits during the course of his career. Of these, about 29 date from Paris. He very much wanted to paint portraits in this period, but could not afford models. Using his own reflection was a natural, inexpensive and easy solution. It allowed him to experiment with various styles, techniques and effects of light and color. Most of the Parisian self-portraits are rather small. They were clearly meant as studies and as experiments.
Van Gogh Museum
If you want a quick overview try this 51 second video on You Tube - Self Portraits by Phillip Scott Johnson. I don't think it's in chronological order to show aging and how his approach changed over time - but it's quite remearkable nonetheless.
In each there is the same extraordinary intensity of expression concentrated in the eyes but otherwise there is a considerable variety.
Web Museum
Here are some links to the self-portraits which you can see online - together with some commentary:
  • Van Gogh Museum (Amsterdam) - self portraits:
    • if you want a really good look at some of the examples of self-portraits try the home page where the graphics software zooms in on various self-portraits while you choose which pages to look at.
    • the permanent collection also has a section devoted to self-portraits. If you click on an image, this comments in detail on the painting and highlights anything specific about how, where or when it was painted.
    • it comments on the series of self-portraits here (scroll down) and notes how the colouration becomes much brighter over time.
I should like to paint portraits which would appear after a century to people living then as apparitions. By which I mean that I do not endeavour to achieve this by a photographic resemblance, but by means of our impassioned expressions - that is to say, using our knowledge of and our modern taste for colour as a means of arriving at the expression and the intensification of the character.
Vincent Van Gogh
An intriguing alternative exists: van Gogh may not have painted the self-portraits as psychoanalytical evaluations of himself, but instead merely as experiments in technique.
Jason Wu, Princeton Blog
Vincent: A Complete Portrait : All of Vincent Van Gogh's Self-Portraits, With Excerpts from His Writings is a book published in 1997 which is recommended by Mark Harden of Artchive. For students of self-portraits, the NGA Classroom has a suggested exercise. The exercise suggests reading selections from Van Gogh's letters to discover two of the most distinctive characteristics of a Van Gogh painting.

I hadn't realised until I went back over my blog just how many of my posts have referenced Van Gogh this year (it's a lot!). I think I may well do a separate blog post which provides a more accessible summary of them if anybody would like that as a reference. I'm also going to be updating my squidoo lens - Vincent van Gogh - Resources for Art Lovers with the links in this post.



  1. Good night! You must get out of my head!

    I was thinking about returning to my Photoshop visits with the great keener, Vincent van Gogh.

  2. a great post Katherine (especially for someone keenly interested in portraiture, like me!) many thanks!

  3. How am I ever supposed to get my housework done?!! This post is like an early Christmas present - I know I'll return to it long after Christmas is past.
    Happy, happy Second Anniversary, Katherine. If your blog were to disappear it would leave a gaping hole in my life. And that's saying something because I have a great life.

  4. I'm glad I didn't leave it sitting there now! Thanks for the great feedback.

    Cin - I have a real treat in store for you next year.......


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