Vincent Van Gogh’s 1886 oil painting “Head of a Skeleton with a Burning Cigarette” is an arresting and morbidly fascinating portrait that was painted near the end of the artist’s life. The painting depicts a skull with a bony lower jaw, hollow eyes sockets, and smoking cigarette. The yellow background further emphasizes the skull’s stark white color while giving it a warm hue. The skeleton’s left hand holds a cigarette or cigar, which appears to be in the process of being smoked. The brushstrokes are distinctively Van Gogh, as is his signature style of color palette: bold yet muted colors in shades of blue, red, yellow, and orange.
The painting has been interpreted as an expression of Van Gogh’s own death anxiety, as well as a broader commentary on mortality and the fragility of life. It has been suggested that the burning cigarette may symbolize death and destruction, with its smoke curling up like flames licking at the skull’s face. Critics have also noted that this painting may represent an attempt by Van Gogh to confront his fear of death through art; by creating something out of nothing – literally representing life from death– he can potentially challenge his own anxiety surrounding mortality.
Van Gogh completed this painting while living in Paris where he had initially gone to pursue art but eventually ended up living among prostitutes, criminals and other social outcasts – all of whom were likely represented in some way through this work of art. This painting is part of his larger body of work which often depict themes such as despair and self-destruction; it serves to further emphasize his personal struggles during this period in his life. His use of vivid colors may also reflect his emotional state at the time– while they create warmth they seem paradoxically dark due to their somber subject matter – further drawing attention to the darker side of humanity even when experienced joyfully or with passion.