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“Best and Deepest” Self-Portraits

IF ONE TAKES THE TIME to study Vincent van Gogh’s numerous self-portraits, it is apparent that there are several “Vincents” dwelling within the one Vincent. Never, though, do Vincent’s self-portraits exhibit an outright display of mirth. Like a hound tracking a faint whiff of exotic expectation, one must hunt for the glee hidden beneath the surface of Vincent’s solemn countenance.

Self-Portrait with Pipe by Vincent van Gogh, 1886

Yet, if his mirth is imperceptible within his mirrored visages, there is apparent nevertheless within the vast repertoire of his art and letters an ample supply of unpainted “self-portraits” intimating what Vincent often said of himself when reiterating the words of Saint Paul: “Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.”

As for the human subjects who sat before his discerning eye, Vincent declared: “I always feel confident when I am doing portraits, knowing that this work has much more depth—it isn’t the right word perhaps, but it is what makes me cultivate whatever is best and deepest in me” (Complete Letters 517).

It seems the “best and deepest” that Vincent cultivated in himself, for having seen and depicted the “best and deepest” in others, became the wellspring from which he “drew” the crowning artistic achievements of his life. The entire array of his drawings and paintings, in a manner of speaking, contains implicit self-portraits. The depth of his innermost being permeated the depth he encountered beyond himself in the fullness of nature including human nature, whether in the thunderstruck sky or the sunlit face. Vincent as artist was integrally and resonantly connected to his subject. To stand before his art is to stand before the soul of both.

Self-Portrait (Dedicated to Paul Gauguin) by Vincent van Gogh, 1888

From the nearly 900 Van Gogh still life, landscape, seascape, and “peoplescape” paintings that may be alternately viewed as projective renditions of aspects of Vincent’s inner subjectivities, for those viewers who keep their eyes peeled there also emerge before them more than a few veiled images of the holy and mysterious One—the Artist—whose enshrouded appearances are principally and sublimely joyful. This may explain in part the consolation so widely derived from the mindful observation of Vincent’s art.

Vincent’s succinctly stated sacral mission was this: “In a picture I want to say something comforting, as music is comforting. I want to paint men and women with that something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolize, and which we seek to convey by the actual radiance and vibration of our coloring” (Complete Letters 531).

Augostina Segatori in Cafe du Tambourin copy 2 674x899
Agostina Segatori Sitting in the Cafe du Tambourin by Vincent van Gogh, 1887

Just so, and truer than all the lesser parts of him that contradict or conceal his deepest self, Vincent’s truest self continues even today to break forth upon many a captivating canvas like a burst of sunlight at dawn. Or, to re-image the epiphany, his brush and pigment unleash his quintessential self like a pageant of bright shining stars dazzling the midnight sky.

Whether we ponder the convergence of darkness and light swirling through the fireworks of his “Starry Night,” or fine-tune our attention to the soulful essence of his portraits of an Agostina Segatori or a Joseph Roulin, it is as we linger in their presence by means of prolonged meditation that we encounter sacred dimensions of life inherent in everyday people.

As for Vincent’s idiosyncratic self-portraits, set alongside his portrayals of those iconic persons who sat for their portraits in front of his sympathetic easel, there is always more depth to be found in their countenances than what meets the first glance of a viewer’s eye.

Portrait of Postman Joseph Roulin by Vincent van Gogh, 1888

Remarkably, to undertake an in-depth study of the celebrated Dutchman’s art and letters is also to embark upon a comparable study, as it were, of ourselves. For, just as Vincent said that painting portraits was “what makes me cultivate whatever is best and deepest in me,” so does our immersion in his artistic and literary imagination cultivate whatever is “best and deepest” in us.

© Copyright 2022, Charles Davidson – All Rights Reserved

Charles Daivdson

Charles Davidson, writer and editor, is a retired Presbyterian (PCUSA) pastor, psychotherapist, and professor of pastoral theology, care, and counseling. He is the author of Bone Dead and Rising: Vincent van Gogh and the Self Before God.