Gauguin painted this portrait of Vincent van Gogh in November 1888, during his brief stay in Arles. Van Gogh had repeatedly asked him to come to Provence to help him realize his dream of creating an artists’ colony in Arles – a ‘Studio of the South.’ Almost as soon as Gauguin arrived, however, problems arose, and the friends had many quarrels. Some of the tension between the two artists can be felt in the portrait, painted only a few weeks before their final confrontation. When Vincent first saw it he seems to have remarked that although he recognized it as himself, he felt Gauguin had portrayed him as a madman. However, he later wrote to Theo: 'My face has lit up after all a lot since, but it was indeed me, extremely tired and charged with electricity as I was then.'
The scene is depicted from above, with all its essential components cut off by the edge of the canvas: the painter himself, his palette and easel, and the table with the vase of sunflowers. The center is quite empty. Gauguin painted his friend’s likeness on burlap, applying the relatively dry paint in a thin layer. When viewed close up, we can clearly see the rough, grainy structure of the surface.