Someone recently asked me to compare two Van Gogh pieces - I’ll start a tag for this because I like the idea - here’s the first set:
Head of a Skeleton with a Burning Cigarette, 1886.
Self-Portrait with Pipe, 1886.
These two pieces are from what I consider to be Van Gogh’s “first awakening” period. In 1885-1886 he finally released himself from the drab green-grey-brown Dutch palette, and started to branch-out more in to Impressionistic and even what we could consider (at least here) to be Gothic influence.
This period symbolizes his beginning steps toward becoming the most masterful colorist of all-time, the father of expressionism, and a pioneer for bringing sacrifice, individuality and emotion in to his work.
Both of these are in fact Self-Portraits, although the first is more of an allusion or a joke of sorts - with this juxtaposition it’s easy to see that Vincent used himself as a model. The smoking in each piece likely serves a dual, and balanced purpose, first, it represents the creative fire within (life), and at the same time, it represents a certain understanding of, and resolve with death.