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Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (1889)

by Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890)

Medium: oil on canvas
Dimensions: H 60.5 x W 50 cm

Van Gogh shows himself in his studio in Arles (in the South of France). He painted this portrait of himself just after leaving hospital, where his injured ear was bandaged. His friend and fellow artist Paul Gauguin had been staying with him and it is thought that, when Gauguin suddenly decided to leave, the already troubled artist became very upset and wounded his ear.

Van Gogh has either just come in from outside (there is an open door to the right), or his meagre studio is very cold, as he is wrapped up in an overcoat and fur-trimmed hat. On the left is a canvas with a hint of work in progress, possibly interrupted. On the right is a favourite Japanese print with the familiar triangle of Mount Fuji. Japanese art was an inspiration to Van Gogh, and Japan, like his home in Arles, was a place that fired his imagination.

Stage 1: look, describe and discuss

Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear

Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear 1889

Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890)

The Courtauld, London (Samuel Courtauld Trust)

Show your students this painting and ask them: Are they interested or not interested? Why?

Ask them to describe the figure and what's going on in the background and around them.

Don't tell them too much about what the picture represents at this stage. Once you have interpreted an image, or been told what to see, it is difficult to look freshly and critically at it or appreciate each other's views.  

Tip: use the zoom feature on the image below to look closer at details. You can open a full-screen version by clicking here.



Stage 2: nudge questions

Now when looking at the painting, ask more specific ('nudge') questions:

  • How has the character and identity of the person in the painting (known as the 'sitter') been expressed?
  • Do his clothes tell us anything about his character or how he is feeling? Do they tell us where he has been?
  • Are there any other clues or symbols that tell us something about his personality or identity?
  • If you were transported into the painting, what might you be able to smell based on the objects you can see?

Activity: watch and discuss

In the following film, the Paralympian, broadcaster and children's book author Ade Adepitan uses his own 'Superpower of Looking' to explore Van Gogh's Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear.

Content note: this film makes reference to Van Gogh wounding his own ear. Background to this incident is provided in the context box and on the Van Gogh Museum website.

Watch the film with your students and discuss the following questions:

  • Did Ade see anything you hadn't spotted yet?
  • What else did you notice about the painting when watching the film?
  • Ade says that one of the women in the picture in the background is carrying a tray. What do you think the women are carrying? Where do you think this painting is set?
  • How might the experience of looking be different for someone with a disability?


Stage 3: Superpower Kit questions

Now we can start to explore the 'elements' of the painting. Use the Superpower Kit to ask questions about the work and spark a discussion.  

We'd suggest focusing on the following areas to help your students 'read' the image (click to open the relevant Superpower Kit section):

Figures – Expression (also conveyed through painting technique)



Ask your students to evidence their points, e.g. where exactly are they looking when they make a statement? Can everybody see what they see?

Final stage: review

Ask your students: how interested are they in the image now? Why?

At this point, you may also want to give your students some time to record and review their observations in a sketchbook on their own or in pairs.


Comparison activity

Compare Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear with Diane Ibbotson's 1970 painting Self Portrait in Best Dress.

In order to support the discussion, you may wish to focus on the following areas of the Superpower Kit: Composition, Space and Materials & Techniques.


Cross-curricular activity: Art & Design and PHSE

Extend into an Art & Design lesson that invites discussion around the following PHSE areas: 'Mental Health and Wellbeing' and 'Living in the Wider World'.

Ask your students to make a self-portrait that expresses one particular feeling they have experienced, positive or negative. Students should think carefully about how their expression and gesture can represent this feeling, as well as any symbols they will use.

Get creative with materials: students could use colouring pencils, felt pens, paint or mixed media, or they could reuse and recycle what's around – perhaps make a collage by cutting things out of a magazine or newspaper. Encourage students to search through different examples of self-portraiture on Art UK to inspire their own.

Once everyone has created a self-portrait, get your students to review their self-portraits as a group. Perhaps you can create a mini exhibition! 

Encourage students to explain their choices:

  • Why have they chosen a certain pose or symbol to represent a particular feeling?
  • What do the paintings tell us about each other?
  • Did anyone learn something new about another person?

Some in-class examples of Van Gogh-inspired portraits drawn in pencil

Some in-class examples of Van Gogh-inspired portraits drawn in pencil

If appropriate, this activity may also be a good opportunity to discuss the idea of the 'selfie' and how people may present themselves online versus their real-life reality. This discussion may tie in with the following PHSE areas at KS2 / CfE Second Level:

  • L15. recognise things appropriate to share and things that should not be shared on social media; rules surrounding distribution of images
  • L16. about how text and images in the media and on social media can be manipulated or invented; strategies to evaluate the reliability of sources and identify misinformation

Explore more wellbeing resources for primary level on our round-up resources page.

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