As part of the exchange series that brought Raphael’s Small Cowper Madonna and Vermeer’s A Lady Writing to the Norton Simon Museum, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., will once again lend a monumental work. This December the Museum welcomes Vincent van Gogh’s hauntingly compelling Self-Portrait, produced in late August 1889, less than a year before his untimely death at age 37, in July 1890.
After voluntarily committing himself in May 1889 to the mental asylum Saint-Paul-de-Mausole at Saint-Rémy in the south of France, 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. Despite these lapses in his mental health, the sustained physical damage to his body from a lack of eating, as well as his seizures, which were diagnosed as epileptic, Van Gogh spent this year of self-imposed confinement producing some of his most revered masterpieces. Save for brief periods during which he was banned from his studio at the asylum—at one point he had tried to ingest his oil paint during an attack—Van Gogh managed to create more than 140 paintings in the 13 months he spent there. These include iconic images of peasants, irises and olive trees, along with his final three self-portraits, one of which is the Washington painting.
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