the most limited definition of the term, Impressionism as the objective
study of light did not encourage so essentially a subjective study
as the self-portrait but in the later expansion of the movement this
self-representation was given renewed force by Cézanne and van Gogh.
The latter has often been compared with Rembrandt in the number and
expressiveness of his self-portraits but while Rembrandt's were distributed
through a lifetime, van Gogh produced some thirty in all in the short
space of five years from the end of the Brabant period (1885)
to the last year of his life at SaintRémy and Auvers. In each
there is the same extraordinary intensity of expression concentrated
in the eyes but otherwise there is a considerable variety. From the
Paris period onwards he used different adaptations of Impressionist
and Neo-Impressionist brushwork, separate patches of color being applied
with varying thickness and direction in a way that makes each painting
a fresh experience.
This, the last of his self-portraits and one of the greatest, was painted only months before his death. The compulsive, restless all-over ornament of the background, recalling the work of mental patients, is for some physicians an evidence that the painting was done in a psychotic state. But the self-image of the painter shows a masterly control and power of observation, a mind perfectly capable of integrating the elements of its chosen activity. The background reminds us of the rhythms of The Starry Night, which the portrait resembles also in the dominating bluish tone of the work. The flowing, pulsing forms of the background, schemata of sustained excitement, are not just ornament, although related to the undulant forms of the decorative art of the 1890's; they are unconfined by a fixed rhythm or pattern and are a means of intensity, rather, an overflow of the artist's feelings to his surroundings. Beside the powerful modelling of the head and bust, so compact and weighty, the wall pattern appears a pale, shallow ornament. Yet the same rhythms occur in the figure and even in the head, which are painted in similar close-packed, coiling, and wavy lines. As we shift our attention from the man to his surroundings and back again, the analogies are multiplied; the nodal points, or centres, in the background ornament begin to resemble more the eyes and ear and buttons of the figure. In all this turmoil and congested eddying motion, we sense the extraordinary firmness of the painter's hand. The acute contrasts of the reddish beard and the surrounding blues and greens, the probing draughtsmanship, the liveness of the tense features, the perfectly ordered play of breaks, variations, and continuities, the very stable proportioning of the areas of the work all these point to a superior mind, however disturbed and apprehensive the artist's feelings.