PASADENA, CA.- The Norton Simon Museum
presents an installation of Vincent van Goghs electrifying Self-Portrait from 1889, a highlight of the National Gallery of Arts 19th-century collection. One of 36 self-portraits by Van Gogh, and among the last he painted, the work was executed as he recovered from a severe breakdown in Saint-Rémy in the summer of 1889. Its installation at the Norton Simon Museum is the first time the painting has been on view on the West Coast, and while Southern California is home to several outstanding works by Van Gogh, none of his self-portraits are in collections here. The loan is part of a special exchange program between the Norton Simon foundations and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., that brought Vermeers A Lady Writing and Raphaels Small Cowper Madonna to the Simon in recent years.
Says Norton Simon Museum President Walter Timoshuk, Van Goghs artistic skill and creativity long captivated Mr. Simon, and he collected several of the artists most impressive works. However, Mr. Simon was never able to purchase a self-portrait. This incredible loan from the National Gallery of Art gives us the opportunity to have such a work in our galleries for a few months, and allows our visitors a rare chance to view a Van Gogh self-portrait on the West Coast.
Van Goghs Self-Portrait will be installed in the Norton Simon Museums 19th-century wing, near several of the Simons own Van Gogh works, including The Mulberry Tree, 1889, Portrait of the Artists Mother, 1888, and others. (The Simons Portrait of a Peasant [Patience Escalier], also from 1888, is on view at The Frick Collection, New York, from Oct. 30, 2012 through Jan. 20, 2013.) A series of special events will be arranged in celebration of this special loan
Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 18531890) is among the worlds most beloved and admired artists, yet he was virtually unknown during his lifetime, and struggled with depression and mental illness. After voluntarily committing himself in May of 1889 to the mental asylum Saint-Paul-de-Mausole at Saint-Rémy, the tormented Van Gogh began the isolated and recuperative process of calming the delusions, paranoid panics and poor health that had plagued him for much of his adult life. Only six months before, he had quarreled with his dear friend Paul Gauguin in Arles and then severed part of his own ear in a fit of desperation and despair. The National Gallery of Arts jolting, poignant Self-Portrait is one of the last renditions of Van Goghs penetrating interpretation of his own visage. Only three of his 36 self-portraits depict him as an artist, holding his palette and brushes. With his wounded ear turned away from the viewer, he confronts his own gaunt image, full of introspection and intensity. Unable at this point to confront other patients, or reality itself, he assumes the dual role of model and artist. By September 1889, after creating Starry Night (now at the Museum of Modern Art, New York) and painting the wheat fields that could be seen from his rooms at the asylum, he wrote to his brother Theo in Paris about two self-portraits he was painting:
So I am working on two portraits of myself at this momentfor want of another modelbecause it is more than time I did a little figure work. One I began the day I got up; I was thin and pale as a ghost. It is dark violetblue and the head whitish with yellow hair, so it has a color effect.
The rapid, almost violent background strokes, painted thickly, shimmer in dissonance and contrast with the artists deeply penetrating stare. Emerald highlights in his face, the blue of his smock, and the golden yellows of his hair and beard are all echoed on his palettepigments that had only recently been ordered and sent as a care package from his brother. The rapidity and repetition of his linear movement belie the amount of forethought and precision that Van Gogh has applied to this composition; it is with utmost restraint that he circumscribes the nose with that bold green outline and calculates the effects of the brilliant yellows and blues.
He was known as the redheaded madman by locals, and yet he carefully composed hundreds of moving letters that demonstrated his love of nature, of man, of literature and language. In 10 short years, from 1880 to 1890, he painted almost unceasingly; more than 850 oil paintings are attributed to him today. One can only imagine his legacy, had he lived beyond his short 37 years.