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Europe 1800 - 1900

Course: Europe 1800 - 1900 > Unit 5

Lesson 4: Post-Impressionism

Van Gogh, Self-Portrait Dedicated to Paul Gauguin

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait Dedicated to Paul Gauguin, 1888, oil on canvas, 24 x 19-11/16 inches (Fogg, Harvard Art Museums) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. This self portrait was painted for Paul Gauguin as part of swap between the artists. Van Gogh chose to represent himself with monastic severity. The other painting is Paul Gauguin's Self-Portrait Dedicated to Vincent van Gogh (Les Misérables). Gauguin's title is a reference to the heroic fugitive, Jean Valjean, in Victor Hugo's novel Les Misérables Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] SPEAKER 1: We're looking at a painting in the Fogg's collection. It's a very famous self-portrait by Vincent van Gogh-- (DUTCH ACCENT) Vincent van Gogh-- and it's one of the toughest self-portraits I think I've ever seen. SPEAKER 2: Tough in terms of the color? Tough in terms of all that van Gogh is achieving at this moment in the late 1880s? SPEAKER 1: This is a painting that feels incredibly modern to me. A willingness to take risks that is-- SPEAKER 2: It's amazing in that way. SPEAKER 1: --that are breathtaking, really. SPEAKER 2: This is a color that no artist ever used before. And an entire background painted like that? What nerve he had to take such radical steps. SPEAKER 1: So, my eye immediately goes to the structure of the painting, the way in which he's created the architecture of the face. His use of line. I look at the way in which the brush strokes wrap around and sort of cascade around the eye and down the nose. And it's almost like a river of paint as it flows across that face and begins to define it. But then it's not just brush work at all. It's the ways in which structure is actually built by color-- SPEAKER 2: Yeah, which I think was something that Cezanne was also thinking about. Creating volume with color instead of in the usual way, with chiaroscuro. But that the pinks and the purples that are in his temple, and the way those modulate over to greens is like nothing I've ever seen. SPEAKER 1: So he's treating the structure of his face, of his head, of his skull very much as if it was a kind of plastic medium. He writes about this portrait, that he has created eyes almost as if he was Japanese, a reference to his love of East Asian painting. But this was a painting that was destined as a gift to Gauguin, as part of an exchange-- SPEAKER 2: Right. With this sort of Utopian idea of a brotherhood of artists that was so important to him. SPEAKER 1: And of course, Gauguin also would have been very interested in East Asian art. This way that he's rendered the hair on his head, plastered down. And it's a really strong contrast, visually. The way in which the coat feels heavy and rough and oversized. And then there's the very tight quality-- SPEAKER 2: To skin. SPEAKER 1: To his skin, yeah. SPEAKER 2: Well, what I was noticing that too and what it was reminding me of was a skull. The sense of the bones underneath his flesh and almost a kind of memento mori. Look at the browns and the blues, rust colors in his jacket, and-- SPEAKER 1: This green. This sea of acid light that surrounds him. SPEAKER 2: He is just an amazing colorist. [MUSIC PLAYING]