People say – and I’m quite willing to believe it – that it’s difficult to know oneself – but it’s not easy to paint oneself either.
Letter to Theo van Gogh. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Thursday, 5 and Friday, 6 September 1889
Green eyes, a red beard, a frowning expression, a blue workman's smock. Van Gogh made a great many self-portraits. We therefore know what he looked like, even though we have only one photo with a clear view of his face.
Van Gogh did not make self-portraits out of vanity. He used them to practise the use of colour, brushstrokes, and facial expressions. He wanted to improve his abilities as a portraitist, and hiring models was expensive. Using yourself as a model was a practical, cheap alternative.
Tired and on edge
In this self-portrait, Van Gogh also tried to show how he felt while he was making it: tired and on edge. In a letter to his sister, he describes his appearance at length.
You’ll say that this is something like, say, the face of — death — in Van Eeden’s book or some such thing.
Letter to Willemien van Gogh. Arles, between Saturday, 16 and Wednesday, 20 June 1888
This is a reference to a novel in which death is described as a pale figure with sunken eyes, dark and earnest, but not cruel or hostile.