Navigation, 1887

Lesson #7

Vincent van Gogh (van-GO)
Dutch, 1853-1890
Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat, 1887
Oil on pasteboard
16 x 12 3/4 in.

Van Gogh Museum (Vincent van Gogh Foundation), Amsterdam, The Netherlands


"Ah! Portraiture, portraiture with the thoughts, the soul of the model in it," Vincent van Gogh exclaimed to his art-dealer brother, Theo. Van Gogh's compassionate heart and interest in individual character - plus the wish of this lonely man to know himself and others - find expression in his portraits. Van Gogh was probably more interested in the human face than other Impressionists, whom he encountered for the first time in 1886. The artist painted -two self-portraits while living with his brother in Paris from 1886-1888. Later ones, like this Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat, reveal the artist's crumbling health. The three-quarter profile, deep shadows, and tight mouth suggest a man suffering physical and emotional stress. A haunted gaze from one blue and one green eye both pleads for our help and pushes us away. Van Gogh is dressed in the yellow straw hat and work coat of the peasant laborer, an often-worn costume befitting his self-image as a working man's artist.


Vincent van Gogh came to Impressionism late, as many of the movement's founders took other paths. He embraced their palette of lighter colors over the dark, heavy forms of his early work. Notice how the daubs of paint change direction to express different forms and textures in the face. The blue-stroked background contrasts vividly with the yellows in the head. Van Gogh delighted in color and studied its combinations all his life.

"I am always in hope of making a discovery there, to express the love of two lovers by a wedding of two complementary colors, their mingling and their opposition, the mysterious vibrations of kindred tones," he wrote, "To express the thought of a brow by the radiance of a light tone against a somber background."


The son of a Dutch clergyman, van Gogh tried and failed at dealing art, teaching, and religious evangelism before turning to drawing and painting at age twenty-seven. He was a self-taught and virtually unnoticed painter who sold only one artwork during his lifetime. Soon after finishing Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat, van Gogh left the bustle of Paris for the south of France.

There he sought the direct inspiration of nature and the color, light, and natural forms he admired in Japanese prints. Unfortunately, his attacks of mental illness continued, and, at the age of thirty-seven, he took his own life.

Looking Questions

  • Describe with words the different ways lines are used in this painting.
  • Next, ask students to answer without words by using their hands only. Have them pretend to use their hands to paint the short brushstrokes of the painting.
  • How does the artist show shadows?
  • How does the artist show the contours of the face?
  • Where are primary colors used?
  • What is the focal point? Why?
  • What colors are the eyes?
  • How would the painting be different if van Gogh were directly facing the viewer?


The Arts

Ask the students to pretend that they are the artist, van Gogh, in this picture. Have them explain what kind of day they had when they painted this picture. How did they feel? How would they describe the clothes they were wearing? Have them then create their own self-portraits. Use the same size paper as the painting, 16 x 12 3/4 inches, and use oil pastels and watercolors. Discuss costume, color, line, and mood. How do these elements affect the painting?

Math or Science

Your students are all multimillionaires. They have just learned that this painting by van Gogh recently sold for fifty million dollars to a private investor.

They have a chance to bid on the rights to the movie Titanic. They also have a chance to acquire the original of this van Gogh painting. If each costs exactly fifty million dollars, and this painting is 16x12 inches, what is the price per square inch? If the movie runs 187 minutes, what is the price per minute? Should size or length factor in determining the cost of a work of art? If the students had the opportunity to own the original van Gogh painting, or the movie Titanic, would they spend the money on the painting or the movie rights? Why?

Language Arts

The artist Vincent van Gogh was intrigued by the concept of painting portraits and self-portraits. When he lived in Paris, he painted twenty-two portraits in less than two weeks. He carefully selected colors for their potential to convey feeling and expression, in addition to a convincing representation. Have the students write a self-portrait, using only words to describe their personality, moods, and facial features. Have them use several descriptive colors from the color wheel. For instance, "Sometimes I feel as blue as the deep blue velvet night sky."

Social Studies

Vincent van Gogh and his brother Theo had a close and supportive relationship. When they were adults, Theo supported Vincent financially and emotionally. Vincent even lived with his brother for a while. Theo managed a Parisian art firm. He introduced Vincent to Impressionist artists such as Gauguin and Degas. Have your students find examples of supportive relationships in recent newspapers. Perhaps they will find articles about teachers who helped their students, sisters or brothers that helped each other, or heroes that sacrificed their own security to help others. Ask them to write an essay about supportiveness and encouragement with several examples.

Continue reading on to the next page, #8: Renoir, Woman Playing a Guitar.

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