In the spring of 1889, Vincent van Gogh checked himself into the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum, seeking treatment for a series of psychotic episodes that had driven him to poor health, strained his personal relationships and cost him at least part of his left ear.
Though confined to two cells with barred windows, the artist didn’t falter in his craft: During his year-long stay, van Gogh produced multiple paintings immortalizing his new surroundings. He captured the hospital’s interior and the vibrant olive trees he saw on his supervised walks; he painted rippling, golden-hued cornfields and the dazzling, star-studded night sky he glimpsed outside of his window.
Van Gogh also turned his artistic lens inward, portraying the dreary, listless expression he saw when he gazed into the mirror. The result was his August 1889 self-portrait, a gloomy, uncharacteristically drab oil painting depicting his suited torso and gaunt, unsmiling face, barely cloaked beneath his beard.
Though the painting has been in Norway’s national collection since 1910, its untextured style and arrestingly dreary color palette, dominated by greens and browns, began to seed doubts among experts in the 1970s. Now, after half a century of controversy, Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum has announced that the self-portrait is “unmistakably” a bona fide van Gogh—and the only known work painted while the artist was suffering a bout of psychosis, reports Mark Brown for the Guardian. The findings also validate the painting as the first van Gogh self-portrait to enter a public collection.
According to Martin Bailey of the Art Newspaper, an investigation conducted in 2006 traced the work back to Joseph and Marie Ginoux, who ran the Café de la Gare in Arles, where Van Gogh lodged the year before his stint at the asylum. The pair sold the painting in 1896, but the date and location at which it was originally rendered remained ambiguous.
After remaining in limbo for another eight years, the painting fell into the hands of experts at the Van Gogh Museum, which was commissioned by Norway’s National Museum to verify—or disprove—its origins in 2014. For the next five years, researchers scoured the brushstrokes and canvas, matching up what they could with van Gogh’s personal effects and letters from the time.
On Monday, the Amsterdam researchers made it official: The portrait, they report in the Febrary issue of the Burlington magazine, was indeed painted by the artist himself, most likely in late August of 1889.
Though the painting isn’t what most would conjure as a classic van Gogh, “the somewhat unusual type of canvas, the pigments, the [somber] palette and the brushwork are all in keeping with his output in the late summer and autumn of that year,” says Louis van Tilborgh of the Van Gogh Museum to the Art Newspaper.
The work is also the only one that fits a description van Gogh penned to his brother, Theo, in September 1889: The missive references “an attempt from when I was ill,” likely referring to a weeks-long state of psychosis that had plagued the artist beginning that July.
As such, van Tilborgh considers the self-study a somewhat therapeutic pursuit.
“He probably painted this portrait to reconcile himself with what he saw in the mirror: a person he did not wish to be, yet was,” says the scholar in a statement.
To emphasize his mental state, van Gogh turned away from the vibrant blues and yellows that characterize his other paintings. He may have purposefully used a palette knife to flatten his painted face, stripping it off some of its liveliness.
Two more van Gogh self-portraits—his last—would follow, both just weeks after in 1889. More in keeping with his typically buoyant style, the vibrant paintings are housed at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Within a year, of panting these works, van Gogh would be dead by apparent suicide at the age of 37.
Together, the trio of paintings catalogue one of the artist’s most challenging chapters: the upswing of relapse to recovery. But even in some of his darkest moments, the new findings suggest, he was unafraid of his brush. Even at their most chaotic, van Gogh’s thoughts could always be channeled onto a medium over which he had mastery: his canvas.
The August 1889 self-portrait, currently on display at the Van Gogh Museum, will join the Amsterdam gallery’s upcoming “In the Picture” exhibition on February 21.