Van Gogh painted and drew numerous portraits throughout his career and was especially interested in them during his early years of painting. He obviously never lost his passion for portraits, in a letter written to his sister, Wilhelmina, on June 5, 1890, Van Gogh wrote,
“What impassions me most – much, much more than all the rest of my métier – is the portrait, the modern portrait. I seek it in colour, and surely I am not the only one to seek it in this direction. I should like – mind you, far be it from me to say that I shall be able to do it, although this is what I am aiming at – I should like to paint portraits which would appear after a century to people living then as apparitions. By which I mean that I do not endeavour to achieve this by a photographic resemblance, but by means of our impassioned expressions – that is to say, using our knowledge of and our modern taste for colour as a means of arriving at the expression and the intensification of the character.”
Van Gogh created portraits, not only of the interesting people he met throughout his life but of his beloved family. In July of 1881, Van Gogh created a pencil and brown ink portrait of his grandfather who was also named Vincent van Gogh. The portrait, Portrait of Vincent Van Gogh, The Artist’s Grandfather is owned by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. In June of that same year Van Gogh created a portrait in pencil which is thought to be his sister titled, Portrait of Willemien Van Gogh.
Portrait of the Artist’s Mother was painted in October of 1888. This portrait was one that Van Gogh created from a black and white photo sent to him by his sister. The portrait portrays his mother as a proud and respectable middle-class woman. Van Gogh’s mother, Anna Carbentus van Gogh, was an amateur artist and introduced her son to art.
In a letter to his brother dated October 8, 1888, Van Gogh wrote about the portrait of his mother:
“That is to say, I am doing a portrait of Mother for myself. I cannot stand the colourless photograph, and I am trying to do one in a harmony of colour, as I see her in my memory.”
In November of 1888, Van Gogh created two portraits that are believed to include his sister, Wilhelmina. Memory of the Garden at Etten and The Novel Reader. Memory of the Garden at Etten is not an actual portrait but is a depiction of a recollection of Van Gogh’s of his mother and sister walking through a garden near his boyhood home in the Netherlands. The Novel Reader is not identified as Van Gogh’s sister but the sketchy expressionistic style used leads one to believe that it was an experimental piece and many believe he was imagining his sister as he created it.
In a letter to his sister he discusses both paintings:
“Here you are. I know this is hardly what one might call a likeness, but for me it renders the poetic character and the style of the garden as I feel it. All the same, let us suppose that the two ladies out for a walk are you and our mother; let us even suppose that there is not the least, absolutely not the least vulgar and fatuous resemblance – yet the deliberate choice of colour, the somber violet with the blotch of violent citron yellow of the dahlias, suggests Mother’s personality to me.”
“I have also painted “Une Liseuse de Romans,” the luxuriant hair very black, a green bodice, the sleeves the colour of wine lees, the skirt black, the background all yellow, bookshelves with books. She is holding a yellow book in her hands.”
For years art historians had believed that Van Gogh had never painted a portrait of his beloved brother and companion Theo. However, in 2011, a painting that was once believed to be a self-portrait, Self-Portrait with Straw Hat, was determined to actually be a portrait of his brother, Theo. Closer examination revealed a number of differences between this painting and other self-portraits. The subject had rounder ears, a cleaner shave and lighter beard. During the time of this painting the brothers were living together so there are no letters providing evidence of who the subject is. The Van Gogh Museum has renamed the painting, Portrait of Theo Van Gogh.