After decades of scepticism, a self-portrait by Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) has finally been confirmed as “unmistakably” by the artist. “It feels really reassuring to know that it’s genuine,” said Mai Britt Guleng, curator at the Oslo’s National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design.
The intriguing painting was bought in 1910 by the Oslo museum, but experts had begun to question its attribution by the 1970s. In 2003, one conservator even suggested that it might be a cunning forgery due to the atypical use of gloomy colours.
Six years ago, the painting was eagerly delivered to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam for intensive examination. Any doubts have now been dispelled following X-ray analysis of the canvas, brushwork studies and provenance research.
Painted in August 1889, the self-portrait is the “only work Van Gogh is known to have painted while suffering from psychosis,” according to Louis van Tilborgh, the Van Gogh Museum’s senior researcher.
“The somewhat unusual type of canvas, the pigments, the sombre palette and the brushwork are all in keeping with his output in the late summer and autumn of that year,” confirmed van Tilborgh.
In the summer of 1889, Van Gogh suffered a severe period of psychosis at a mental asylum near Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. Eight months earlier he had infamously severed his own ear whilst arguing with fellow artist Paul Gauguin (1848-1903). For the troubled artist, this gruesome act would come to mark the beginning of a long spell of hospitalisation.
After trying to swallow paints during his stay at the asylum, the post-Impressionist artist turned to painting as a form of therapy. This brooding self-portrait unflinchingly presents Van Gogh’s gaunt and expressionless face in a wash of muted, cool colours with his mutilated ear visible.
“His timid, sideways glance is easily recognisable and is often found in patients suffering from depression and psychosis,” announced the Amsterdam museum. Researchers have linked the painting to a letter written by Van Gogh in the same year in which he described a self-portrait as “an attempt from when I was ill”.
The original provenance of the painting was also traced back to Joseph and Marie Ginoux. In 1888, Van Gogh had lodged in their Café in Arles and was aware that Marie was experiencing mental health issues as well. “Vincent was unhappy in life, and thought she was too,” explained van Tilborgh. “In giving her the self-portrait, he was saying: ‘My situation is worse than yours, but we are soulmates.’ It is a heart-broken self-portrait, crying out for sympathy.”
Van Gogh’s painting will be part of a temporary exhibition titled ‘In the Picture’, from 21 February 2020 at the Van Gogh Museum. Next year it will return to Oslo to be displayed in the museum’s new building.