Vincent Van Gogh, self-portrait ca. 1887 (source: Chicago Museum of Art)

Vincent Van Gogh, self-portrait ca. 1887 (source: Chicago Museum of Art)

I must have been 11 or 12 when I first visited the Art Institute of Chicago. My folks ferried me and my many younger siblings to see cultural stuff in Chicago. We charged through the boring rooms full of blown glass and miniature furniture to see the armor. Then we went off in search of lunch, which meant wandering through rooms full of art. We stopped in the room with the Impressionists, and this painting by Vincent van Gogh caught my attention. I stared for a while, and then I saw the half-hidden thing under the large bush. I never told my brothers about it; it felt like a secret between me and van Gogh. I always return to that painting when I go to the museum.

One day after visiting my old friend, I stopped to look at this self-portrait, and found myself mesmerized again, this time by the face of the artist. It was his expression. Wary? Melancholy?

Years later, I looked at another self-portrait (this is an excellent site for looking closely, use the image viewer). There is a bit of the same expression in his eyes, but what struck me was the background. He paints it as if he could see whorls in the very air. That same set of whorls, in a very similar color, is in the jacket. Look again at the details in the face. Very faintly you can see similar whorls and colors.

This made me see the Art Institute self-portrait in a new light. Van Gogh uses little daubs of paint, which makes sense for his tweed jacket, but why in the background? Look at the flow of the daubs, and the colors, the way they form a set of nearly parallel whorls that flow in a spiral through the air, through the coat and back into the air. There are similar daubs, and a bit of spiral in the beard and the face, they seem focus on his left eye.

I wonder if he felt he was part of the air, part of the light, part of the earth, as if the boundary between his body and the universe was indistinct, as if he only existed at a central core, a knot of being in the numinous?

Or was he just practicing his pointillism? There is no reason to believe that he had any such view as mine, or any purpose other than to paint. We can’t see into his mind, we only see the result, and follow where it leads us. That’s where it led me.

Vincent Van Gogh, self-portrait ca. 1887 (source: Chicago Museum of Art)

I must have been 11 or 12 when I first visited the Art Institute of Chicago. My folks ferried me and my many younger siblings to see cultural stuff in Chicago. We charged through the boring rooms full of blown glass and miniature furniture to see the armor. Then we went off in search of lunch, which meant wandering through rooms full of art. We stopped in the room with the Impressionists, and this painting by Vincent van Gogh caught my attention. I stared for a while, and then I saw the half-hidden thing under the large bush. I never told my brothers about it; it felt like a secret between me and van Gogh. I always return to that painting when I go to the museum.

One day after visiting my old friend, I stopped to look at this self-portrait, and found myself mesmerized again, this time by the face of the artist. It was his expression. Wary? Melancholy?

Years later, I looked at another self-portrait (this is an excellent site for looking closely, use the image viewer). There is a bit of the same expression in his eyes, but what struck me was the background. He paints it as if he could see whorls in the very air. That same set of whorls, in a very similar color, is in the jacket. Look again at the details in the face. Very faintly you can see similar whorls and colors.

This made me see the Art Institute self-portrait in a new light. Van Gogh uses little daubs of paint, which makes sense for his tweed jacket, but why in the background? Look at the flow of the daubs, and the colors, the way they form a set of nearly parallel whorls that flow in a spiral through the air, through the coat and back into the air. There are similar daubs, and a bit of spiral in the beard and the face, they seem focus on his left eye.

I wonder if he felt he was part of the air, part of the light, part of the earth, as if the boundary between his body and the universe was indistinct, as if he only existed at a central core, a knot of being in the numinous?

Or was he just practicing his pointillism? There is no reason to believe that he had any such view as mine, or any purpose other than to paint. We can’t see into his mind, we only see the result, and follow where it leads us. That’s where it led me.

masaccio

masaccio

I read a lot of books.