VINCENT VAN GOGH: Skulls, Skeletons and Cigarettes

Lida Prypchan
3 min readMar 18, 2019
‘Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette’ [1885–1886] Vincent van Gogh

Pursued by controversy, Vincent van Gogh’s time in Paris with his brother, Theo, in 1886 was preceded by a stay in Antwerp. After being accused of improper behavior with a village woman in Nuenen, van Gogh had headed to Antwerp to attempt to study art formally — specifically the study of color theory. One may assume it was this study period that welcomed Vincent into the world of colorful painting, especially given his subsequent fondness for Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock prints — and this may ultimately be the case — but Vincent’s work in Antwerp appeared to be irreverent and dark.

The most well-known work van Gogh painted during his stay in Antwerp is titled ‘Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette.’ This oil-on-canvas painting not only features his penchant for dark, somber colors, but the subject matter — at least on the surface — is as morose as any of his work to date. But what was an artist without human subjects to do? In an academic setting the introduction to live models consisted of a study of skeletons, serving to give students an understanding of human anatomy.

(Van Gogh’s ‘Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette’ depicts a skull with a lit cigarette dangling from its teeth. Although this particular work would not be out of place in an anti-smoking campaign, Vincent loved his tobacco and did not likely intend the painting as such.)

The reality is — Vincent van Gogh was a very poor student. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to learn — he certainly did — he simply did a poor job of learning what others tried to teach him, especially if the teaching was more academic than practical. Vincent believed that art, and the study of art, should be a practical experience with a focus on areas identified by oneself.

Unfortunately, the structured academic environment of the art academy did not conform to his personal views. Vincent considered his art classes “damned boring,” and, as such, he often engaged in open conflict with his instructors and let his work reflect his views and experiences. Other works completed by Vincent at the art academy include further examples of his ‘studio humor.’ His ‘Hanging Skeleton and Cat’ is a study of two conflicting subjects in one piece — while the simply titled ‘Skull’, a painting incorporating an unusual use of yellow, is said to be Vincent’s own personal study of human mortality.

Amongst Vincent’s work, the ‘Skulls’ series has been much debated. Certainly it is easy to look at these paintings and see ‘typical’ van Gogh — morose, macabre and dark. However, these works are also said to be more humorous. Experts agree that during this period of academic exploration (no longer than any of his other short-lived forays into academia), Vincent wasn’t making statements about life, or more importantly, death — he was merely thumbing his nose at the uptight establishment that tried to force him to work in a way he didn’t believe reflected his own personal style.

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Lida Prypchan

Psychiatrist & Writer — Writing and meditating at the intersection of psychiatry, philosophy, Buddhism and the arts. More information at www.lidaprypchan.com