In 1888, Vincent van Gogh asked two of his artist friends, Paul Gauguin and Emile Bernard, to paint portraits of one another. Van Gogh’s request coincided with his plans to develop a utopian artist community in the South of France. It was van Gogh’s hope that Gauguin and Bernard would join him in communal living and art-making—growing as artists by exchanging ideas and collaborating creatively. But Gauguin and Bernard didn’t complete the portraits—themselves perhaps more attached to notions of singularity and the “artist-genius” than they were to artistic alliance. Instead of painting a portrait of the other, the two artists painted themselves, and included within their self-portraits a small image of the other artist. The works were sent to van Gogh, who, delighted and inspired by them, in turn rendered his own self-portrait and mailed it to Gauguin.
Van Gogh’s original assignment would have generated entirely different portraits—ones that reveal each artist’s vision of the other. But the self-portraits that emerged are now indelibly connected to their respective artists, and are often read as representative of their personalities and values.
Portraits, like self-portraits, will vary significantly depending upon the artist, the context, and the relationship between artist and subject (even in a self-portrait, the way that we see ourselves is constantly evolving). Our perceptions of the world and ourselves are often out of sync with those of others. And even though ultimately, we know ourselves more fully than anyone else can, those closest to us may recognize certain aspects of our character that we discount. So wouldn’t it be eye-opening to respond to van Gogh’s invitation to engage in a portrait exchange, through which we might see ourselves as someone else does, and vice versa? Remember that portraits can be as realistic or abstract as you wish, and that they are as often conceptual as they are photorealistic. And you don’t need to be an “artist” to complete a work of art—it only takes imagination and a little inspiration!
- Think deeply about your subject. Consider your loved one/subject—the ways in which he/she has helped you, the ways in which he/she shines, and his/her attributes that you admire. While everyone has traits that can be perceived as negative, try to focus on the positive. Select the art medium that best represents that person—painting, collage, photography, mixed media, sculpture—and get to work. You might cut up images of places, words, colors, or objects that symbolize or literally represent your subject, or you might use pastels or paints to apply pure form and color.
- Write a description of the portrait. Explain why you chose the images or colors you did. What specific qualities of your subject inspired the work? This part is important, because in art as in life, we can’t assume that our intentions are obvious.
- Exchange the images. If you live near your subject, get together to present one another with your completed work of art and accompanying description. If you’re geographically distant, do a mail exchange. Allow each other’s portrait and words to reveal yourselves to both of you.