How can someone make such a facial expression? This man is clearly smiling with his lips but crying with his eyes. The man in the paining appears to be smiling a futile smile inadvertently at a moment of despair. This painting is a self-portrait by Richard Gerstl, who is called “Austria’s Van Gogh.” Why on earth did the young painter make a self-portrait with such a face?
Born into an affluent family, Gerstl wanted to become a painter early in his life despite his father’s opposition. Although he was admitted to prestigious secondary school but dropped out for his failure to adapt to the school environment. He was accepted into the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna at the age of 15. However, he also clashed with his instructors and dropped out, before teaching himself on painting. Although he did not win recognition from and got along with fellow artists, he was fond of music and exchanged close friendships with musicians.
Around 1907, he began to develop a close relationship with Arnold Schoenberg, a music composer who lived in the same building, without knowing it would the source of trouble for him. Gerstl taught Schoenberg art and occasionally painted the portraits of the latter’s family members and friends. He became very close to Schoenberg's wife Mathilde, who was six years older. In the summer of 1908, she left her husband to travel to Vienna with Gerstl. But the painter became alone after Mathilde rejoined her husband in October. Gerstl lost both his love and friendship, and his reason to live.
Distraught by the scars from the romance, the sense of loss and loneliness, and his lack of artistic acceptance, he hanged himself in his own studio on November 4, 1908. Before he committed suicide, he set his studio on fire. A great deal of his artwork as well as personal papers and letters were destroyed in the fire, although some of his paintings survived it. “Self-Portrait, Laughing,” is one of them. The depiction of a smile at a moment of deep despair seems to mirror Gerstl’s state of mind at his last moment. The painting feels like telling us that just as life is no longer life under extreme pain, a smile is not a smile at a time of deep despair.