It is easy to read history backward, to see the signs of what will come once the end is already known. When he looks at the portraits that Vincent Van Gogh painted of himself in the winter of 1887-88 and in the winter and fall of 1889 – the year before he would take his own life – we see in his own depiction of his face a sense of looking despair. But how much of this is actually in these portraits? If he had not died the next year but had lived on for a decade, marrying and having children and grandchildren toast the public recognition that would only come after his death, would we not see instead anguish something more like irony? (Zemel 81). It is, of course, impossible to know, for we view the past through the lens of the present and in that lens Van Gogh is the archetypical misunderstood artist, driven in the end beyond madness to the point at which self-annihilation called with its sweet siren song.
If we look, for example, at the self-portrait that he painted in September 1889, we do not see a man who is obviously full of self-despair. True, he has painted the background that surrounds him in the same light blues with hints of green that his jacket is woven with, as if he were perhaps intent on melting into the background, a man who is intent on finding refuge by hiding.
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