Research point 2: portraits conveying mood or atmosphere

We are asked to go online and find portraits that convey a distinctive mood or atmosphere, rather than simply a physical likeness. It is suggested we look at Picasso’s Blue period, Van Gogh’s paintings of peasants, Rembrandt’s portraits and his restricted palette; as well as art from the Fauvist era and German Expressionists.

Pablo Picasso  – Blue period – 1900 to 1904

Some have said Picasso’s Blue (and maybe also the Rose period) was a result of the suicide of his friend Carlos Casagemas but others maintain he only started painting in this limited palette quite some time after Casagemas’ death.   Nevertheless, Picasso painted portraits of largely impoverished people who were on the fringes of society as he travelled around Spain – the beggars, old and frail people, blind people, prostitutes, street children …  these are all haunting paintings, filled with pathos and emotion.   Apparently after it was x-rayed, other images were discovered beneath  The Old Guitarist (below) – perhaps Picasso painted over these other works, as he couldn’t afford to buy new canvas?   (been there done that)

Pablo Picasso ‘The Old Guitarist’ c. 1903
Pablo Picasso ‘Celestina’ 1903

Van Gogh painted and drew hundreds of portraits of farm workers, labourers, peasants and other poor people during the 1800’s.  I think the most famous is The Potato Eaters of 1885. 

Vincent Van Gogh ‘The Potato Eaters’ c.1885 (Bridgeman Education)

Another painting that is full of atmosphere in his painting,  ‘Peasant woman by the hearth’  (also 1885).  She is huddled next to a kettle hanging over a tiny fire, peeling potatoes.  The palette he used is cold, dark and oppressive, echoing the conditions in which the woman must have lived. Despite the subject matter, Van Gogh still imbues the woman with a quiet dignity as she prepares what must have been a very meagre meal indeed.

Vincent Van Gogh ‘Peasant woman by the hearth’ c. 1885 (Bridgeman Education)


So much has been written about Rembrandt’s limited palette, his techniques and body of work that it seems a bit futile to try and add my tuppence worth on here. In this portrait (below), he used a very limited palette of perhaps only four colours – white, black, vermillion and yellow ochre (which was apprently the same palette used by Frans Hals).

Rembrandt ‘Self-portrait’ c. 1660


Fauvism is the name applied to the work produced by a group of artists (which included Henri Matisse and André Derain) from around 1905 to 1910, which is characterised by strong colours and fierce brushwork  (

In the notes, for this research point, we’re told to look at the ‘… disturbing, nightmarish quality of the portraits and figure paintings of the Fauve painters and German Expressionists’   Henri Matisse was perhaps the most well-known of all the Fauvists and continued to work with the trademark bright colours long after fauvism lost its appeal.   I don’t find any of Matisse’s works nightmarish, it is filled with light and expression.

Henri Matisse ‘Self-portrait’ 1918′

German Expressionism

There were two main groups of German expressionist artists: Die Brücke (the bridge) led by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) led by Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc.   (from

I haven’t had time to explore all the artists mentioned online relating to this genre. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s work stands out for me though.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner ‘Waking up’ Charcoal drawing (Bridgeman Education)
Bathers at Moritzburg 1909/26 Ernst Ludwig Kirchner 1880-1938 Purchased 1980

There are a few other self-portraits that stand out for me that I’ve come across lately. Modigliani was about 15 when he did this self-portrait.

Modigliani ‘Self portrait’ Charcoal on paper c.1899

I suppose I can’t really end this without some Richter self-portraits:

Gerhard Richter ‘Self Portrait’ offset litho 1971
Gerhard Richter ‘Self-portrait’ 1996

And I’ll finish with one of only two self-portraits I’ve been able to find so far by Luc Tuymans:

Luc Tuymans ‘Self-portrait’

Bibliography   (Picasso’s blue period –  The Old Guitarist)   (Fauvists) (info re Modigliani self portrait)   (Contemporary portraits – virtual tour)

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