Interpretive Resource

Vincent van Gogh's Bedroom at Arles, 1889

Discussion questions and activities for home and classroom about van Gogh's energetic and revealing painting of his bedroom.

Impressionism and Post-Impressionism
Art Institute of Chicago, Museum Education Department: Teacher Programs. Impressionism and Post-Impressionism: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1995, p. 123-126.

Bedroom at Arles, 1889
Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)
Oil on canvas, 29 x 36 5/8 in. (73.6 x 92.3 cm)

Discussion:
This bedroom in the yellow house at Arles was very important to van Gogh, who decorated the room as part of his plan to get ready for other artists and his brother Theo to visit or live there. His frequent letters to Theo about the first version of this painting included descriptions and often sketches of the room’s furnishings. Van Gogh said that "everything from the chairs to the pictures have character... the beds... give an appearance of solidity, durability and quiet..."

Although van Gogh was often in emotional and mental upheaval, he yearned for harmony. Look at the way he outlines the furniture, emphasizing its solidity. Yet the upward slant of the floor and bed, and the way the pictures tilt away from the wall create a sense of instability and reveal his internal struggle. He crowds the background with the bed, window, paintings, night stand, mirror, and hanging clothes and towels. Yet the foreground is open and empty, as if waiting for a visitor. Can you find other inconsistencies?

There is a dramatic sense of energy about the room. Look at the way the top of the painting is cropped. It cuts the windows, walls, and paintings off at different angles. Can the doors be opened easily or will it take some shifting of furniture? What do you think about the way the chairs face the bed as if in conversation with each other or in anticipation of a guest? Are the chairs positioned strategically? One chair is placed almost as guardian at the door, the other next to the head of the bed as if it were a storyteller, nurse, or mother. The person in either chair would be positioned to observe the sleeper. Can you find other pairs of objects in this room? Why are there two pillows, two chairs, two doors, two portraits, and two other small prints or paintings? (These pairs reinforce the idea that van Gogh is expecting to share this house and that this pairing will bring some order to his life.)

Activities
1. Van Gogh’s bedroom is, in effect, a self-portrait. Make a shadowbox portrait of your own bedroom. Construct a box out of cardboard or use a ready-made box for the walls of the bedroom. Furniture can be made out of posterboard or cut out of magazines. Cut interior decorating items from magazines and paste them into the box. Include your interests, hobbies, desires, characteristics, fears, and needs. Display the boxes around the classroom and try to match each with its maker.

2. Read one of van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo. (See below.) Van Gogh’s depiction of his room was a combination of reality and imagination, something like a daydream. Write a descriptive letter to someone in your school or to a pen pal about a room in your house or school. Detail the layout and furnishings. Describe what goes on in the room. Include doors and windows and indicate what they open on to. Include a sketch of the room. Is this depiction of the room real or imagined or a combination of the two? [The following is one of van Gogh’s many letters to his brother, probably written in the autumn of 1888. It discusses his plans for the first version of this painting. He painted the Art Institute’s version from memory many months later.]

My dear Theo,
At last I can send you a little sketch to give you at least an idea of the way the work is shaping up. For today I am all right again. My eyes are still tired, but then I had a new idea in my head and here is the sketch of it. Another size 30 canvas. 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, looking at the picture ought to rest the brain, or rather the imagination. The walls are pale violet. The floor is of red tiles. 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. The toilet table orange, the basin blue. The doors lilac. And that is all—there is nothing in this room with its closed shutters. The broad lines of the furniture again must express inviolable rest. Portraits on the walls, and a mirror and a towel and some clothes. The frame — as there is no white in the picture — will be white. This by way of revenge for the enforced rest I was obliged to take. I shall work on it again all day, but you see how simple the conception is. The shadows and the cast shadows are suppressed; it is painted in free flat tints like the Japanese prints... I am not writing you a long letter, because tomorrow very early I am going to begin in the cool morning light, so as to finish my canvas. How are the pains—don’t forget to tell me about them. I know that you will write one of these days. I will make you sketches of the other rooms too someday.

With a good handshake, Ever yours, Vincent

Reprinted from The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh, Volume III. By permission of Little Brown and Company, Inc., in conjunction with the New York Graphic Society. Mi Rights Reserved. 3. Bedroom at Arles is an interior scene of a personal nature. Degas was a very fine portrait painter and was one of the Impressionist painters who depicted intimate domestic scenes. Compare the two interior scenes. The class should be divided and half assigned van Gogh’s Bedroom and half Degas’s Uncle and Niece. As each group analyzes its designated painting, students should formulate observations through descriptive words or phrases. Include statements about mood, color, activity, viewer involvement, and other interpretations. Bring the two groups together to classify their findings in a chart form. Relate the similarities and discuss the differences of these two private spaces. What conclusions can be drawn about the paintings from the chart?

4. Map van Gogh’s life. He was a restless soul who moved about and lived in several different cities. After a time in one place, he would then move on, looking for harmony in a new locale. Though the peace he sought was internal, he believed that a change of residency was the solution to his restlessness. Research van Gogh’s life and record on a map the dates and the cities he lived in.
Create a master map by expanding this activity to include all the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists contained in this manual. Each student or pair of students could research a different artist. Include all the information gathered and with the map in the manual add removable notes to indicate where and when each artist lived. What other artist was a restless nomad? (Paul Gauguin)

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