Vincent Van Gogh’s Gothic Masterpiece: Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette

"THE IMMORTAL OF THE MORTAL"

Vincent Van Gogh (1853–1890) gave us many visual delights, from café scenes to still lifes with sunflowers in vases. But one of his most enduring and charmingly gothic images is Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette (1886).

head of a skeleton with a burning cigarette

Vincent Van Gogh - Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette (1886)

There is something in the image that is almost adolescent, rebellious. And yet, it is also eerie. This complicated mixture of emotions is all communicated by the hand of a master painter, creating an interesting dichotomy at the heart of the painting.

In the last several decades, the Van Gogh smoking skull has taken on new life as a memento mori for smokers. Though the painter likely had no knowledge of the connection between cigarettes and lung cancer, there is something in this painting that suggests a devil-may-care attitude, something that is always so well punctuated by a burning cigarette hanging out of the mouth.

What Is the Story Behind Van Gogh’s Skeleton Painting?

At the time, Van Gogh was studying at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, Belgium. Skeletons were a standard teaching tool used to study anatomy and practice sketching. Van Gogh would have had access to many skeletons and would no doubt have many drawings of them stacking up in his studio.

But Van Gogh had grown bored of his classes, which he believed were not teaching him anything. In a way, this painting is a small protest against his time at the academy, because while everyone was expected to draw skeletons, nobody was committing them to a painting.

This strange choice of subject matter was lost on no one at the time. And the addition of such a living, human element as a burning cigarette animates the skeleton in a shocking way. The dead coming back to life gives us a chill even today, and it’s remained a favorite Van Gogh painting — even though it is not characteristic of much of his work.

What Makes the Skeleton With Burning Cigarette an Important Painting?

When a master like Van Gogh does almost anything, it will eventually get attention in the artworld. But his smoking skull stands out especially — for its style, imaginative subject matter, and uniqueness in his oeuvre.

The painting mixes humor with darkness, giving us a sense of the painter’s personality. Van Gogh, a lifelong heavy smoker, almost uses the painting as a self-portrait. But we can also believe that he is at the same time peering into our bodies (X-rays wouldn’t be discovered until almost 10 years after the painting) while giving us a terrifying vision of an animated corpse long since decayed down to bone. The striking use of the black background further emphasizes this ghoulish vision. 

Though it no doubt came from a joke, the end result is unsettling to us even now. At the same time, the attitude — presaging a kind of slacker detachment — has its own grim appeal.

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