5 Reasons To Visit ‘Van Gogh. Self-Portraits’ at the Courtauld

When we think of Van Gogh, swirling shades of cerulean, apricot and evergreen immediately come to mind. The artist, who came to define the modern art scene of the late 19th century, comes to life through the medium of portraiture in the Courtauld Gallery’s newest exhibition, The Morgan Stanley Exhibition: Van Gogh. Self-portraits.

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5 Reasons To Visit The Morgan Stanley Exhibition: Van Gogh. Self-Portraits at the Courtauld Gallery

1. Van Gogh. Self-Portraits is the Courtauld Gallery’s first exhibition since its reopening

The Courtauld Gallery reopened its doors in November 2021 following a three-year refurbishment project at Somerset House. The gallery’s last exhibition predates coronavirus, making the opening of The Morgan Stanley Exhibition: Van Gogh. Self-Portraits its first post-pandemic event. It is also the Courtauld Gallery’s first exhibition of 2022, and the first in a brand new exhibition program highlighting the work of artists like Edvard Munch, Henry Fuseli, Parmigianino, Helen Saunders and – of course – Vincent van Gogh.

The Exhibitionist: The Reopening of the Courtauld Gallery

Vincent van Gogh (1853 - 1890), Self-Portrait with Gray Felt Hat, September - October 1887, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890), Self-Portrait with Gray Felt Hat, September – October 1887, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

2. This is the biggest exhibition of self-portraits by Van Gogh in over 25 years

The Morgan Stanley Exhibition: Van Gogh. Self-Portraits brings together 16 self-portraits from across Van Gogh’s career, making it the largest exhibition of its kind in over a quarter of a century. Many of the artworks on show are from international collections, including the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, the Art Institute of Chicago and our very own National Gallery. These paintings are rarely – if ever – lent to other galleries, and so their coming together marks a truly art-historic occasion.

3. It’s also the first exhibition exploring the full span of Van Gogh’s self-portraiture

Although a popular genre of art, portraiture isn’t always treated with the fuss it deserves. Despite Van Gogh’s prominence as painter, this is the first exhibition to bring together the artist’s self-portraits from across his career. In doing so, Van Gogh. Self-Portraits looks beyond more traditionally popular artworks, like ‘The Starry Night’ and ‘Café Terrace at Night’, in favor of something more personal to the artist: self-portraiture.

Van Gogh created 35 paintings and two drawings depicting himself during his lifetime, all of which were created between the spring of 1886 to September 1889. Through the exhibition, guests are encouraged to explore how the artist used self-portraiture as a tool for experimentation, psychological introspection and inner and outer identity construction.

4. Some paintings are being reunited for the first time since they left the artist’s studio

Amongst the 16 self-portraits on show, two are being reunited for the first time in over 130 years. Painted just a week apart while Van Gogh stayed at an asylum in 1889, the self-portraits were last seen together in the studio space the artist used in the facility. The first painting, created in late August after a serious mental health relapse, was described by Van Gogh as ‘an attempt from when I was ill’. The second is a rare depiction of the artist in his occupation, as he holds a paint palette and brushes at the bottom of the frame.

Van Gogh portraits in the Courtauld Gallery

Photo (c) Matt Crossick/PA Wire

5. The exhibition avoids romanticising Van Gogh’s ‘tormented artist’ reputation

Much of Van Gogh’s work has been subject to scrutiny and conclusion-jumping due to the artist’s personal life, with many taking the opportunity to pinpoint psychological trauma as the main motivator for his artistic portfolio. Much of Van Gogh’s skill is therefore overlooked in favor of a dramatic narrative.

With Van Gogh. Self-Portraits, however, emphasis falls on the artist’s ambitions as a portrait painter. Visitors are given a timeline of Van Gogh’s progress, with notes on the styles and techniques he was trying along the way. And while his personal life is certainly not overlooked, it isn’t integral to the exhibition’s story.

The curator of the exhibition, Dr Karen Serres, explains how: ‘Van Gogh is an icon of self-portraiture. His self-portraits have come to define him in the public imagination, offering access to his personality and becoming the lens through which we view his genius, passion and struggles. This exhibition is the first to explore the full span of Van Gogh’s self-portraiture, which is striking in its variety, offering a unique and fascinating opportunity to observe Van Gogh’ creative and personal development.’

Vincent van Gogh (1853 - 1890), Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, January 1889, The Courtauld Gallery, London (Samuel Courtauld Trust)

Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890), Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, January 1889, The Courtauld Gallery, London (Samuel Courtauld Trust)

Final Word

With a unique take on the career of one of art history’s most prolific painters, The Morgan Stanley Exhibition: Van Gogh. Self-Portraits does more than reduce the artist to his work or ‘madman’ status. Self-portraiture sets the stage for an intriguing – and often personal – glimpse into the life of Van Gogh without over-indulging in tragedy or drama. At the very heart of it all lies a tribute to the artist’s experimental and rapidly changing style, facilitated through an examination of the self.

VISIT

The Morgan Stanley Exhibition: Van Gogh. Self-Portraits will be showing at the Courtauld Gallery between 3 February and 8 May 2022, with tickets priced at £16 for adults. For more information, please visit courtauld.ac.uk

Featured image: Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890), Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, January 1889, The Courtauld Gallery, London (Samuel Courtauld Trust)

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