His hands, almost bunched into fists, are pressed against his face, giving the overwhelming impression of a man trapped in internal conflict. The pose is one that Van Gogh returned to time and again in his works, repeating the pose with male and female models, in media such as pencil drawing, etching, lithograph and ultimately in oil.
The names of these various pieces bear testament to Van Gogh's intentions, which generally can be ascertained without a lot of analysis: 'Sorrowful Old Man', 'Weeping woman', 'Mourning Woman seated on a Basket,' and the name of whole collection of similar works: 'Worn Out.' These sketches and lithographs have found their way all over the world, finding homes in places as diverse as Tehran's Museum of Contemporary Art and the Art Institute of Chicago, even as most can be found in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The oil painting, fully known as Sorrowing Old Man (At Eternity's Gate) but most commonly known by the parenthetical phrase, was completed in May 1890, while Van Gogh was recovering from a severe bout of mental illness, and while he was still in the asylum. He would die, by his own hand it is widely believed, just two months later.
The painting is, like many Van Gogh's, deceptively superficial at first glance, seeming to be almost cartoonish and simple. It is only longer observation that drives home the near perfect perspectives of the room and the chair, the minutely detailed rendering of the wooden floorboards, and the accurate capturing of the boots, old and well used, but carefully looked after and polished to a shine. The emotion felt by the man is clear too: immense grief, sorrow or regret, tightly contained in a world that cared little for any male emotion but righteous anger. The acute observation in the man pressing his clenched fists into his own face, covering his eyes reveals the man's pride and the reluctance to be seen as weak or 'less'.
It also serves to make the man faceless, allowing any observer to see, perhaps, a future version of themselves, facing the end of life and weighing up the decisions made during life to end up in this place, this room which is warm enough and comfortable enough, as evidenced by the carved wooden chair and the healthy fire in the hearth, but that is not a palace or mansion.
The shade of blue used in the man's clothing, apparently practical workmen's top and trousers not so very distant from modern overalls, was reported to be Van Gogh's favourite shade of blue, and it is surmised that the painting, although based on the earlier pencil sketch, sent to Van Gogh as he recovered, on request, by his brother Theo, is something of a final self-portrait, a depiction of his inner torment in Van Gogh's favoured method of communication: painting. The painting hangs in the Kruller Muller Museum which is in the village of Otterlo in the Netherlands.