Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette, 1885 or 1886
Are you surprised to see this painting included? Maybe you didn’t realize that Vincent van Gogh had a dark sense of humor.
Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette was probably made in the winter of 1885–86. Its dark palette and sensibility are consistent with early works made before the artist moved to Paris. At this time, Vincent was attending classes at the Belgian Royal Academy of Fine Arts, which he complained were boring and taught him nothing. On the surface, Skull of a Skeleton appears to be momento mori, or moralistic still life employing symbolic motifs, like fading flowers or a snuffed-out candle, to remind viewers of the fleeting nature of life. When the artist painted it, he actually was in poor health. Yet, so closely cropped and presented in such a cheeky in-your-face kind of way, as if the skeleton was really enjoying that cigarette, the picture doesn’t offer much of a warning against tobacco. Van Gogh considered smoking to be one of life’s rare pleasures, and remained a smoker until his death.
Maybe we should read the image as Vincent’s way of thumbing his nose at the conservative practices of the Academy, which insisted that its students develop an understanding of human anatomy by routinely studying and drawing skeletons rather than live models. “I’ve got your skeleton right here!” Van Gogh seems to assert sarcastically, and “By the way, my command of anatomy is just fine, thank you very much.”