Bacon based this painting on a self-portrait by Vincent Van Gogh which he knew only from photographs, as it had been destroyed by wartime bombing. The painter seems solitary, while the dark shadows introduce a sense of foreboding or melancholy. Van Gogh epitomised the idea of the misunderstood artist, set apart from mainstream society.
Bacon might also have been stimulated by the film Lust for Life, starring Kirk Douglas as Van Gogh, which had been released a year earlier. This film reinforced the idea of Van Gogh as a lonely genius.