In the latter part of the nineteenth century, artists increasingly explored how an artwork’s formal qualities, such as brushwork, color, and line, could display the painter’s subjective response to the subject. In traditional portraiture, the setting and attributes often offered clues to the sitter’s identity. With Vincent van Gogh’s The Bedroom, the artist’s use of line, brushstroke, color and setting serve as surrogates for the sitter, telling us as much about van Gogh as if the artist had painted a conventional self-portrait.
This bedroom scene was part of a decorating scheme for van Gogh’s new house in Arles, where he had moved from Paris in 1888. The Dutch artist dubbed his new home "The Studio of the South," with the hope that friends and artists would join him there in southern France. Although there are no people in the room, it is hardly empty.
Instead van Gogh has placed in the space that he considered one of the most important rooms in the house, and certainly its most intimate, those few treasured objects in his possession. Reflecting his love of art are the landscape and portraits of friends hanging on the walls. Beneath them are Japanese prints, a source of great inspiration. The wooden double bed, he felt, conveyed "a feeling of solidity, of permanence of tranquility." A few simple pieces of clothing hang behind the bed suggesting his poverty. The still life on the table holds his wash basin and pitcher, with mirror and towel on the wall.
It is also a room that features the vibrant color so important to van Gogh. "Color is to do everything," he wrote to his brother, Theo (1857-1891), an art dealer in Paris. "The walls are pale violet. . . . The wood of the bed and chairs is the yellow of fresh butter, the sheets and pillows very light greenish citron. The coverlet scarlet. The window green." In fact, the entire space conveys an overwhelming sense of the artist’s presence, communicated in large part through the artist’s paint application—in his words, "brushed on roughly, with a thick Impasto." Each object seems palpable, as solid as sculpture, though modeled in paint. His line is adamant and broad. The dramatic perspective of the floor, bed, and walls creates immediacy, putting the viewer in the room. The floor rushes up; the bed looms; pictures tilt off the wall.
"Looking at the picture ought to rest the brain, or rather the imagination," declared van Gogh, and the work does reveal the artist’s attempts to depict thought and feeling through pictorial elements. The Bedroom is a self-portrait without literally including the artist. Through its setting, rendered with his uniquely expressive technique, we sense van Gogh’s outer persona and inner self as well.
Van Gogh’s artists’ colony never materialized, with the exception of a tumultuous two-month visit by Gauguin. Nonetheless, during van Gogh’s fifteen-month stay in Arles (from February 1888 to May 1889), he created a prodigious body of work— some two hundred landscapes, still lifes, portraits, and interiors, including the bedroom scene. He was so fond of this image that he painted several versions. He did the first, which is now in the Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh, Amsterdam, in October 1888, just days before Gauguin’s visit. In May 1889, after suffering a series of physical and emotional breakdowns, van Gogh voluntarily checked himself into an asylum at nearby Saint-Remy, where he remained for a year.
"When I saw my canvases again after my illnesses," he wrote Theo, "the one that seemed the best to me was the bedroom." Wanting to recreate one of the happiest periods of his life, his hopeful first months in Aries, van Gogh painted the Art Institute’s version of this bedroom scene in September 1889. At the same time, he also made a smaller copy, now in the Musee d’Orsay, Paris, for his mother and sister. In a sense, he was sending them a portrait of his happier self. He died less than a year later, in July 1890.
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