Norton Simon brings late Van Gogh self-portrait to California

Right now, the most famous Van Gogh painting in a California museum happens to be one of his sunniest: The Getty owns an exuberant field of irises that the artist painted in 1889 as a sort of postcard for his arrival at a bucolic-looking asylum in Saint Rémy de Provence, France.

But this winter, the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, home to seven other Van Gogh paintings, will exhibit a darker work from the same year that is celebrated for different reasons. The intense self-portrait with jarring colors and turbulent violet-blue brushwork in the background seems to speak to the artist’s volatile psychological state.

For three months starting Dec. 7, the Norton Simon will exhibit this self-portrait, which belongs to the National Gallery of Art in Washington and has never been shown before in California, under an exchange program that also involves the Frick Collection in New York.

The Norton Simon previously borrowed four masterpieces, works by Vermeer, Ingres, Raphael and Memling, at the pace of roughly one a year.


“We don’t do large loan exhibitions here, so it’s always a thrill for us to have a major masterwork like the Van Gogh coming in and to think about how it fits into our own permanent collection,” said Carol Togneri, chief curator at the Norton Simon.

Each time the museum displays one of the borrowed artworks, it turns the exhibition of a single painting into something of an event. It tends to schedule the showing around the holidays, to reach Rose Bowl visitors. This time, the choice of a later work from the end of the 19th century gives the Pasadena museum a chance to draw more attention to its Impressionist and post-Impressionist holdings.

Togneri says she plans to install the self-portrait near Van Gogh’s fiery vision of a Mulberry tree from 1889 and his greenish portrait of his mother from 1888, both owned by the Norton Simon. Do not expect to see the museum’s rugged Portrait of a Peasant (Patience Escalier), 1888, in this installation, as it is being lent to the Frick Collection — through the same exchange program — starting in October.

The 1889 Van Gogh self-portrait, one of his last, was made the year before his death and shortly after the psychotic break in which he cut off part of his left ear with a razor. Scholars believe he based this painting on a mirror image in which the injured ear was hidden from view.

One unusual feature: This painting shows the artist holding a painter’s palette and brushes. Out of some three dozen self-portraits he made throughout his life, Van Gogh made only three using the accouterments of his work.

Togneri said she sees the image as Van Gogh’s attempt to affirm his identity as an artist, made during a poignant struggle to stave off delusions and paranoia.

“Here was a man who had a tremendous identity problem. He was always trying to do something and failing miserably, whether it was trying to be an art dealer or trying to be a preacher to win his parents’ affection,” she said.

“I think this was Van Gogh’s attempt to say: This is who I am, even in the most desperate straits.”


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