Examination: Van Gogh's Use of Color to Evoke Serenity and Rest
An exploration of the artist's use of color to express ideas and feelings in his painting of his bedroom in the Yellow House in Arles.

Van Gogh and Gauguin
Art Institute of Chicago, Museum Education Department: Student and Teacher Programs. Van Gogh and Gauguin, 2001, p. 15-17.

After having painted five large canvases in one week, an exhausted Vincent wrote to Theo in mid–October (1888), "I have been and still am nearly half-dead from the past week’s work. I cannot do any more yet, and besides, there is a very violent mistral that raises clouds of dust which whiten the trees on the plain from top to bottom." To rest from the dusty outdoors, which exacerbated his eye strain, van Gogh worked indoors. Two days later, a rested, yet weary-eyed van Gogh painted the first of three paintings of his own bedroom.

My eyes are still tired, but then I had a new idea in my head…This time it’s just simply my bedroom, only here color is to do everything, and giving by its simplification a grander style to things, is to be suggestive here of rest or of sleep in general. In a word, to look at the picture ought to rest the brain rather than the imagination.

Van Gogh depicted this intimate, simple space with a vivid palette that includes pale violet, red, yellow of fresh butter, light greenish-citron, green, orange, blue, and violet. In actuality, the walls of the room were whitewashed with lime, and the floor was paved with red tile although the brushstrokes give the tile the appearance of wood. "Instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I have before my eyes, I use color more arbitrarily in order to express myself forcibly." Van Gogh’s use of color as a tool to express ideas and feelings rather than conveying a literal representation reveals his intent to use color as an expressive element in and of itself. Maintaining his interest in the effect of complementary colors, van Gogh included all three pairs of complementary colors (red and green, yellow and violet, blue and orange) to achieve chromatic equilibrium that he felt conveyed a sense of restful calm. Explaining this concept to Gauguin he wrote, "By means of all these very diverse tones I have wanted to express an absolute restfulness." Here the bright colors and dramatic perspective of the floor, bed, and walls help to draw the viewer into the room.

These distortions in perspective have often been interpreted as evidence of van Gogh’s disturbed psychological state. However, they may also refer to the actual shape and architectural format of the bedroom itself. We know that the far wall, containing the window flanked by the mirror and painted landscape, is at an angle and not parallel to the opposite wall. One could argue that van Gogh was faithfully recording the bedroom’s unusual shape. Here, his bed overlaps the doorframe and appears to loom and thrust itself toward the viewer. Situated between a staircase and Gauguin’s bedroom, van Gogh’s room was much smaller than Gauguin’s adjacent three-windowed room. But, while each man had his own sleeping quarters, they were anything but private. Gauguin had to go through van Gogh’s bedroom each time he wanted to access his own.

Notwithstanding the effect of the highly saturated colors and the room’s apparent distortions, van Gogh shows us an empty, orderly, and realistic living space. Its contents are fundamental to a simple bedroom—a bed, a dressing table, chairs, and a mirror. The thick brushstrokes appear to recreate materials and textures in a realistic manner—they radiate from the center of each chair to leave the impression of the caning of the straw seat, and they follow the horizontal and vertical striations found in the wood grain of the bed frame.

In addition to pairing complementary colors, van Gogh further emphasizes harmony in The Bedroom through its arrangement. There are two pillows, two Japanese prints, two portraits (an unidentified self-portrait and an unknown blonde woman), and two chairs that create a hospitable and open center space—a welcoming space that would inspire two artists to leave their mark on the Studio of the South.

While van Gogh often replicated the same subject (e.g. his Sunflowers series and his Poet’s Garden series), to create a decorative scheme for the Yellow House in Arles, the rationale behind his creation of multiple versions of The Bedroom differs. The first version (now owned by the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam) was painted in October 1888 just prior to Gauguin’s visit to Arles. Seven months later, Vincent sent the painting to his brother, but once it arrived, Theo reported that it had been damaged by excessive humidity. Theo sent the painting back to Vincent so that he could copy it (in case it could not be mended) before returning it to Paris for repair. In September 1889, at Saint-Rémy where he was recovering from a psychiatric episode, van Gogh completed the copy. Even though he had his original painting to work from, van Gogh also had to rely on his memory of the bedroom. A third, smaller copy, originally intended for his sister and mother and now in the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, was also painted during his time in Saint-Rémy. While all three paintings of the artist’s bedroom depict the same arrangement of furniture, van Gogh revealed his interest in the expressive properties of color by varying it in each picture.