Sunlight seeps through the open windows, flooding the room with bright, glorious light. The fading greenish hue coming through the wooden floor boards reminds me of outdoors. It’s rustic and simple, with its abundance of wood reminding us of a larger, open world outside. But do we want to explore it? Not me. I want to experience the world inside the room. Paintings on the walls break up the monotonous blue. Simple furniture is accentuated by the smell of wood, and the covering on the large monumental bed is relentlessly red. It feels like I’m inside a painting I’ve seen many times: Van Gogh’s “The Bedroom”…
Actually this is not impossible. The Art Institute of Chicago has recreated this alluring painting, completed just a year before Van Gogh’s death in Auvers-sur-Oise (France). Everything down to the pictures on the walls, the colour of the floor boards, the finish on the wooden bed frame and even the towel hanging on the hook by the door – everything is exactly as Van Gogh portrayed it. If you’ve ever wanted to step into a fantasy – this is it!
For me as an art lover, this presents an especially exciting opportunity. Whenever I travel, I try to visit house museums of artists, writers and musicians who lived, breathed and created their masterpieces in their homes. Rembrandt, Pushkin, Rodin, Rubens, Dickens… Some of these are preserved exactly as they were. Such is the Pushkin museum in St Petersburg, where the poet’s study has been kept as it was on the day he died in 1837 from a gunshot wound received in a duel with Dantes. Others, like Musee Rodin in Paris, or Rubens house museum in Antwerp, have become sanctuaries for the work of the artists – galleries in their own right. Either way, these homes contain the essence of their inhabitants. A little bit (or a lot!) of the artists lives in these houses, and as we step carefully through their rooms and corridors, it’s hard not to imagine them walking beside us… or sitting down to work nearby… or in the gardens outside.
I love it. It’s like time travel – especially if the personality of the famous inhabitant has been preserved in the house. Rembrandt’s kitchen really is Rembrandt’s kitchen, complete with tiny seventeenth century chairs and low set tables. And if you are like me, you might indulge in a little artistic/historical “intertextuality” and purchase a magnet of Rembrandt’s kitchen to hang in your own kitchen!
But back to Van Gogh. He did not begin painting until his late 20s, despite being around and associated with art circles. Yet, in about a decade he produced over 2000 works, among them about 860 oil paintings. Such prolific results are a testament to the zealousness with which he approached every task. (He was even dismissed from his post as a preacher in a small Belgian town for overzealousness!) There are actually three versions of The Bedroom (Did I mention overzealousness?). The first was painted in October 1888, and hangs in the Van Gogh Museum (Amsterdam). The other two were painted in September 1889: earlier one is now in the Art Institute of Chicago – being replicated for our unique “live” experience, and the later one hangs in Musee D’Orsay. Another example of Vincent’s impulsive enthusiasm? Perhaps. Maybe it was an attempt to correct a sense of dissatisfaction. We’ll never really know – but it is fun to wonder!
Whatever the reason behind it, the bedroom in Arles obviously held a significant aesthetic to Van Gogh. Two sketches accompanied the first version of The Bedroom. One of these he sent to Gaugin, and the other to his brother Theo, in which he explained,
The square pieces of furniture must express unswerving rest; also the portraits on the wall, the mirror, the bottle, and some costumes. The white colour has not been applied to the picture, so its frame will be white, aimed to get me even with the compulsory rest recommended for me. I have depicted no type of shade or shadow; I have only applied simple plain colours, like those in crêpes.
To me, Vincent’s art does not only reflect his unstoppable desire to express, but forces us recognise the impulsive emotion and powerful honesty of his work. “No shadows” meant no real effort to depict naturalism, instead simply painting the thing before his eyes. This disturbed, tormented artist has long fascinated me, and I am delighted in the possibility of entering his bizarre world. Was it really as he saw it? Or was it his alternate reality that he immortalised on canvas. Maybe this room was a frightening place – maybe a sanctuary – maybe both. Maybe the only way for him to keep going was to paint whatever he could see. (A lot of us use something to keep us going when things get rough.) Would I feel what Vincent felt as he took his daily refuge in this bedroom? Probably not. But I really want to see what I would feel standing (or sleeping) in this bedroom.