In 1888 Vincent van Gogh suggested to Paul Gauguin and Bernard that they should paint each other's portraits and send them to him, while he would
paint his own portrait and send it to Gauguin, The concept of exchanging paintings and sharing artistic theories was one that Van Gogh had absorbed through his study of Japanese art, where artists
tend to work as a brotherhood. This was an idea that had appealed to Van Gogh for some years and was reflected by ambition to form an artists' colony, or at least have a shored studio.
Eventually Gauguin painted this self portrait with small picture of Bernard in the background. He wrote to Van Gogh that 'Les Miserables', as written on the painting alluded to Victor Hugo's novel and the tortured hero Jean Voljeon, who was a character that Gauguin had identified with, and described the figure as having, 'the mask of a badly dressed bandit... The hot blood pulsates through the face and the tonolities of a glowing forge which surround the eyes indicate the fiery lava that kindles our painter's soul.'