Katherine J. Wu/Smithsonianmag.com
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”