When you think of Vincent Van Gogh, it’s likely his vibrant, hallucinatory visions that spring to mind. Star-filled skies, electric yellow , and piercing self portraits. This dapper corpse, with its rictus grin and dangling cig, is a whole different beast. Rendered in monochome on a stark black background, it’s missing Van Gogh’s signature swirling brushstrokes and bold color. Instead, his marks are loose, almost casual, neatly capturing form and shadow with the bare minimum of strokes. It’s simple, and kind of funny.
Van Gogh painted this skeleton while enrolled in art classes at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, Belgium, sometime in the winter of 1885. It was a rough period for the artist. His father Theodorus had died earlier in the year, and Vincent had moved from Nuenen after getting one of his models pregnant and making an enemy of the local priest. Relocated in Antwerp, Van Gogh lived in a small apartment above a paint dealer’s shop, spending the small stipends his brother Theo sent him on art supplies and living off of coffee, bread and tobacco. He complained about his classes, claiming they taught him nothing, but his assignments included studies of human anatomy based on skeletons—the likely origin of this artwork.
Interpretations of the skeleton smoker vary, as interpretations usually do. Some consider it a vanitas, a reminder of death and mortality, perhaps inspired by his father’s passing or Van Gogh’s own poor health at the time. Some interpret it as a criticism of smoking, though Vincent loved tobacco and smoked like a victorian chimney until his death. The Van Gogh Museum, where the artwork currently resides dismisses it as ‘a juvenile joke.’ Whatever his true intent, I prefer the idea that Van Gogh was simply tired of his studies, adding the drooping cigarette as note of dark humor, subtly twisting a formal class project into a mordent self-portrait. Bored to death, taking joy in his favorite vice.
Thanks to the brilliant book cover designer Chip Kidd, Van Gogh’s skelly took on a new life in 2008, when he used the work on the cover of David Sedaris’s book of essays “When You Are Engulfed in Flames,” which among other eclectic stories featured the author’s journey to quit smoking. It was a very popular book. For years everytime I walked past a bookstore this fellow was peeking out of a window display. And now, thanks to the magic of print-on-demand, you can both support Obelisk and share your living room with Van Gogh’s jaunty skeleton by buying an archival print of the artwork below.
Reed Enger, "Head of a Skeleton with a Burning Cigarette," in Obelisk Art History, Published July 24, 2021; last modified August 13, 2021, http://arthistoryproject.com/artists/vincent-van-gogh/head-of-a-skeleton-with-a-burning-cigarette/.