If you’ve ever tried to make a self-portrait, here’s what you find: only the truth will work. In my high school art class I was given the assignment to draw one, and as I went back and forth from the mirror to the paper, I tried to draw what I saw. The thing is, I also wanted to improve what I saw—brighter eyes, a more chiseled nose, greater definition in my cheekbones, a little less of a baby face.
Here’s what vanity got me—a portrait of someone who didn’t really look like me, and a B-minus.
Van Gogh the Tortured Soul
Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) painted more than 40 self-portraits. Some aren’t honest at all. There was one he did when he was fascinated by Japanese art, where he rendered himself with a shaved head and Asian eyes of a Buddhist monk. But one of his self-portraits stands out as brutally honest. It’s called Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear. He painted it in January 1889, the same year he painted Starry Night and the year before he killed himself with a bullet to the heart.
If you know anything about van Gogh outside of his art, perhaps you know he was a tortured soul. He suffered from depression, paranoia, and public outbursts so disconcerting that in March 1889 (two months after Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear), 30 of his neighbors in his village of Arles, France, petitioned the police to deal with this fou roux (the redheaded madman). The police responded by removing him from his rented flat—The Yellow House made famous in his painting The Bedroom.
Shorty after his eviction notice, van Gogh admitted himself into an asylum for the mentally ill: the Saint-Paul asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. Back in those days, most psychological maladies were simply called “madness.” Debilitating depression? Madness. Bipolar? Paranoia? Acute epilepsy? Madness. Treatment for madness often involved asylum. Labeled mad by his own community, the “redheaded madman” checked himself in and remained in Saint-Rémy for a year, from May 1889 to May 1890.
What did he do with as a patient at Saint-Rémy? He painted. In fact, van Gogh’s most celebrated works were created on the grounds of an insane asylum: Irises, Starry Night, and Wheat Field with Cypresses. He painted the asylum’s gardens, grounds, and corridors. He painted the fields he could see beyond the asylum walls and the olive groves he’d walk through when he occasionally left. He painted portraits of his caregivers and fellow patients. He painted his own versions of other artists’ work that he loved.
And he painted self-portraits. Van Gogh painted more than 140 paintings during his asylum year, one canvas every three days. So much beauty came from that season of life, but so much humiliation and public rejection facilitated it.
Van Gogh and His Ear
What drove van Gogh to check himself in to the asylum? What made his neighbors think he was mad? Why did they petition the police to remove him from their community? There were many contributing factors, but the most obvious episode came several weeks before, when he and his flatmate—the impressionist painter Paul Gauguin—had a falling out. Van Gogh took a blade to his ear, cut off the lobe, wrapped it in paper, and took it to a local prostitute named Rachel, who seemed to have been a friend in his community of folks on the fringe. When he handed her the blood-soaked parcel, he asked her to “guard this object carefully.”
Word of this outburst spread quickly, and the next morning police found him asleep in his bed, covered in blood. They took him to the hospital, where he began to count the cost of what he had lost. His roommate, friend, and fellow artist had left, and van Gogh felt responsible. His body was permanently maimed. His neighbors knew the story.
To add insult to injury, when van Gogh cut off his ear he was something of a rising star in the art world. After years of obscurity, his work had begun to catch the artistic community’s attention. He was on the verge of breaking through. So on top of everything else, his bloody-eared public spectacle—which led to his eviction and detention in the asylum—brought with it a mountain of humiliating professional shame.
Yet even in the hospital, van Gogh did what he always did: he painted. He painted at least two self-portraits with his bandaged ear, capturing the moment of his greatest shame.
Our Honest Self-Portrait
If you’re anything like me, it’s hard to render an honest self-portrait because we want to conceal what’s unattractive. We want to hide what’s broken. We want to appear beautiful. But when we do this, we hide what needs redemption—all that we trust Christ to redeem. When we do this, we forget that what’s redeemed is now beautiful.
Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear hangs in my office to remind me that if I’m drawing my self-portrait dishonestly—if I’m pretending I’m okay and not in need of help—then I’m concealing from others the fact that I’m broken.
This painting should indict all our hearts. How willing are we to admit that we’ve got a lot of things in us that aren’t right? How willing are we to admit that our wounds need binding, that we desperately need asylum? If we can’t show this honestly, how will anyone see Christ in us? Or worse, what kind of Christ will they see?
In the case of van Gogh, we find a sweet bit of irony. Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, in which he willingly captures his own spiritual and relational poverty, is now worth millions. The canvas on which he captures his defining moment of shame and need for rescue has become a work of art no one I know could afford to buy.
But isn’t this how God sees his people? We’re fully exposed to him in all our shortcomings, yet at the same time we’re of unimaginable value. This is how we should see others, and it’s how we should be willing to be seen by others—broken, yet of incalculable worth.
In The Return of the Prodigal Son, Henri Nouwen wrote, “Our brokenness has no other beauty but the beauty that comes from the compassion that surrounds it.” Our wounds aren’t beautiful, but the story behind their healing is.
But how can we tell the story of our healing if we hide the wounds that need it?