How do you paint yourself?
If we painted paintings like we judged people, the strokes would be broad and sloppy.
We’d paint it quickly, and we’d apply only one coat. The irony, of course is that these statements are also quick, broad strokes. See how easy it is to paint that way?
The famous painter created several self-portraits before his death in the late 1800’s. By “several” self-portraits, I mean over 40 drawings, sketches, and–most famously–oil paintings of himself.
How vain, it’s easy to assume. That was the thought that popped into my head as I looked up at one of those self-portraits. Over 40 self-portraits, I thought, that guy must have loved the taste of his own Kool-aid.
I was in my early teens at the time. My grandmother had taken my cousin and me to Europe that summer. She said it’d be good for our worldview to see buildings older than our country. My grandmother is a wise woman, and she was absolutely correct. Looking back, that trip was one of the most formative experiences of my life. The lessons I learned during those two weeks reflect in nearly every discussion I have about politics, race, and societal struggles.
But like most lessons we learn, I hadn’t learned them yet.
So there I stood in front of one of many Van Goghs by Van Gogh, surprised by his vanity.
The Musee d’Orsay.
Although I hadn’t learned the life lesson yet, I did learn a fact about Van Gogh that day.
Van Gogh was like many other artists of his day. Many of them created self-portraits, often creating more than just one.
I had to do a Google search to remember the name of the museum we had visited. The Musee d’Orsay, it was called. I don’t remember much of it outside of looking at the self-portrait, but the pictures on the Internet reminded me of how beautiful it is.
I’m thankful I had to look it up. The first paragraph on the museum’s website captured the message I wanted to share with you.
“Like the old masters…”
“Like the old masters,” it reads, “[Van Gogh] observed himself critically in the mirror.”
It goes on, “Painting oneself is not an innocuous act: it is a questioning which often leads to an identity crisis.”
Imagine Van Gogh’s thoughts as he painted himself. With each stroke of his brush, he critiqued himself. Most of his oil paintings were done with thick strokes. They’re visible even to the untrained art eye like mine. With every stroke, he judged.
How do you paint yourself?
This is a tough question, but the answer is revealing. How you paint yourself mirrors how you paint others.
There was another line on the museum’s website worth sharing with you. In a letter to his sister, Van Gogh once penned, “People say, and I am willing to believe it, that it is hard to know yourself. But it is not easy to paint yourself, either.”
The search for self-awareness is one of the greatest searches to undertake.
“The portraits painted by Rembrandt,” he continued to his sister, “are more than a view of nature, they are more like a revelation.”
And the revelation we make is one of the greatest treasures we could ever find.
Photo: Flickr/Dean Hochman