November 7th, 2020

One of the Most Famous Rooms in Art Hstory: Van Gogh’s “The Bedroom”

via The Van Gogh Blog – via @theartnewspaper

It was autumn when Van Gogh first slept in the Yellow House and painted what must be the most famous bedroom in art history. The picture is a still life, although one on an enormous scale. What does it tell us about Vincent’s life on the eve of Gauguin’s arrival?

Van Gogh began renting the Yellow House in Arles in May 1888, but it was unfurnished and initially he kept his hotel room and just used the new place as a studio. In August he bought two beds, one for himself and the other for a guest, a fellow artist. He first slept in his own bed there in mid-September. “I can live and breathe, and think and paint”, he wrote with delight to his sister Wil.

It was in this room that Van Gogh composed some of his finest pictures. From Arles he wrote that “the most beautiful paintings are those one dreams of while smoking a pipe in one’s bed”. No doubt this was where he conceived the idea for “The Bedroom” (“La Chambre à Coucher”) (1888).

On 16 October Vincent started work on the iconic picture, in order to give his brother Theo an idea of his new home. He advised Theo that “looking at the painting should rest the mind, or rather, the imagination”. For us, today, it gives a glimpse into his domestic life.

Although the bed looks narrow, Van Gogh described it as a “wide double bed” and it has two pillows beside the scarlet blanket. Was he hoping that he might find a woman to share it with? The two chairs prefigure a bold painting of his own “empty chair” which he would make a few weeks later (now at the National Gallery, London).

On the far wall his clothes hang on a row of hooks, along with the straw hat that protected him while working under the strong Provençal sun. On the washstand is a miniature still life—with a water flask and glass, jug and basin, soap, and three bottles (he also presumably kept his razor there). Above this hangs a mirror that he had just bought, presumably used both for grooming and capturing self-portraits.

The perspective almost seems to make the bedroom sway, as in a dream—but this is partly because of the room’s unusual trapezoid shape. The house had a diagonal frontage, where it where it faced a public garden, slicing off the room at an angle near the washstand. The bed seems to loom up at us, with the bedend appearing even higher than the bedhead.

Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo that the walls were “pale violet” in the painting. But his pigments have deteriorated: the cochineal red in the blended violet has faded, now leaving the walls a bluish tone. Specialists at the Van Gogh Museum have created a digital recolourised image of what the original painting might have looked like.


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