Try to picture the Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh and you’ll likely think of him with a large white bandage over his right ear. This popular mental image of the tortured
master stems from Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear
(1889), one of more than 30 self-portraits he painted within a span of only four years.
Before beginning his first self-portraits, Van Gogh primarily painted landscapes and interiors, with the occasional portrait of a local townsperson. By 1886, the artist was yearning to develop his skills in portraiture, but lacked the money needed to pay models, so he found a solution: He would paint himself. “If I can manage to paint the coloring of my own head, which is not to be done without some difficulty,” he wrote in 1888, “I shall likewise be able to paint the heads of other good souls, men and women.”
Whether shown sitting or working, and often sporting a straw hat or smoking a pipe, Van Gogh painted his red-haired likeness with the pulsating brushstrokes and saturated swirls that characterize his style. Yet after the ear-cutting episode of December 1888, Van Gogh created only two self-portraits displaying his injured side—which, because he worked from a mirror reflection, was actually the left side of his face.
The following year, Van Gogh stopped making self-portraits altogether, and he died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1890. A full century later, in 1998, his Portrait of the Artist Without his Beard (1889)—which may have been the final time Van Gogh painted himself—was purchased at auction for $71.5 million, becoming one of the most expensive self-portraits ever sold.