Paul Gauguin joined van Gogh in the town of Arles in November 1888, to paint together in what van Gogh called the ‘studio of the south’, but they quickly started to quarrel. After a vicious argument, van Gogh mutilated his right ear.
This self-portrait was one of the first works van Gogh painted after this incident (another, showing him smoking a pipe, is reproduced here). He believed that the act of painting would help him recover his mental equilibrium.
Van Gogh stands before an easel with a scarcely worked painting, and a Japanese print which he owned. He seems to turn his back on both. This could be interpreted as his reflections on the end of his dreams to found an artistic colony, inspired by Japanese art. But the picture could be a defiant statement of his determination to continue painting.
Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with a Bandaged Ear, January 1889 (Private Collection)It gives no final answer to these questions; we are left to decide for ourselves.