On October 11, 1888, when Vincent van Gogh was in Arles, painting feverishly in
anticipation of Paul Gauguin’s arrival there, he wrote to his brother Theo: "Instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I see before me, I make more arbitrary use of color to express myself more forcefully." A few days later, he completed his first version of The Bedroom (Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum), an image that exemplifies this approach, reconciling decorative and expressive elements to novel effect.
The Art Institute’s canvas, executed by the artist in September 1889, is the second version of the composition (a third is in the Musée d’Orsay, Paris). It features a different set of paintings on the walls than does the original; and its tile floor, muted red with green interstices in the Amsterdam canvas, consists of patches of aquamarine with black-brown outlines over gray underpainting. Van Gogh’s repetition of the motif indicates that it remained profoundly significant for him after Gauguin’s departure from Arles in December 1888.
A depiction of the bedroom van Gogh furnished for himself in the Yellow House, the work has a graphic clarity reminiscent of the Japanese woodblock prints that the artist collected; shadows are banished and forms are radically simplified. Van Gogh claimed he wanted the work to express "absolute restfulness." Apparently, he thought that the inclusion of all six complementary colors would result in a chromatic equilibrium, thus communicating calm. However, to our eyes, the palette of orange, aquamarine, lime green, blood red, and chrome yellow seems to throb with intensity. This nervous energy is heightened by the floor, which plunges precipitously, thrusting the foot of the bed toward the viewer. The chairs seem like surrogates for absent human beings, creating an air of expectation perhaps related to van Gogh’s high hopes for a "Studio of the South."
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