Last Updated 20 Jun 2022

Painting: Vincent Van Gogh, Bedroom in Arles

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On a smaller canvas than two other similar paintings, Vincent Van Gogh carefully painted for the third time his bedroom in Arles, a charming town in the south of France, and thus created this approximately 22 ? x 29’’ artwork. In fact, Van Gogh made three almost identical paintings on the theme of his bedroom and are named « Bedroom in Arles ». The first one, kept at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam is painted in October 1888. About a year after, Van Gogh made two copies: one of which is the same size and is preserved today at the Art Institute of Chicago.

The third one is currently at De Young Museum in San Francisco (but originally belongs to the Musee d’Orsay in Paris) and is smaller than the others1. This oil painting on a linen canvas represents Van Gogh’s tidy bedroom. Nothing lets us think that this is the room of a painter. We do not know this because he does not display his painting equipment. Nothing lies around, not even a paint tube in a corner or a brush. This bedroom seems to be for relaxation and not for his work as a painter. Here, he could finally forget his fatigue, have some comfort, sleep in peace.

The bed is thus the dominant subject of the painting, suggesting the importance of comfort and rest. By painting his bedroom where everything is in its place, the painter may also want to show that he is a very neat man who cares for himself, and who organizes his life in a reasonable manner. In addition to the prominent bed, this room exudes quietness and expresses, absolute rest by its various shades. Indeed, the room has beautiful shiny colors. In Holland, where the painter was born2, the weather is not always nice and the sky is therefore often gray.

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Here however, there are multiple vibrant colors that certainly illustrate the happy life he had in France. Perhaps he had come to Arles for the sun and for him, it was an immense joy to live in such bright bedroom, bursting with colors. What is also fascinating about this piece of art is how the painter highlights the simplicity of his bedroom through the medium of color: « the pale lilac walls, the floor of an old brown, the chairs and bed chrome yellow, the blood red cover, the orange little table and the blue basin”, as the painter describes it.

Van Gogh asserted that he wanted to express a complete rest by handling all these different shades2. The color black, which could be evocating a certain form of anguish, is almost nonexistent in this painting. Only the frame of the mirror and windows is black. We wonder if this could mean that Van Gogh was afraid of his future and afraid to face up to reality. This is a possibility. In fact, despite the evidence of his happiness, present in this painting, Van Gogh was not married2 and many clues here let us think that he wished to be.

Although the bedroom is very sparsely furnished and only contains essential items (which shows, in addition to the choice of colors, a great simplicity), we notice that many of these objects go together in pairs (two pillows, two chairs, two portraits on the wall, two drawings, and even two doors). Thus, this painting on canvas was perhaps his way of expressing his wish to meet someone and that his bedroom was arranged so as to welcome her.

But because it was just him in this bedroom, he certainly felt less lonely by doubling the objects. Van Gogh’s painting consists almost entirely of straight lines. This is reminiscent of a children’s coloring which would have been filled in with color pencils, because the edges of objects are bolder and their filling up seem almost slapdash, neglected. This elaborate post-impressionist design may be compared to such work as Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (book p. 370).

But whereas Van Gogh favored paintings composed of multiple thin brush strokes, Seurat preferred the use of the pointillism system, which consisted of “applying color to the canvas in tiny dots. 3” In this painting of Seurat, the color also focuses on hues. There are numerous colors too, their contrast is intense, and the sun shine, like in the Van Gogh’s bedroom, fills the picture, suggesting happiness and tranquility. Like Van Gogh, Seurat played with repetitive forms (the parasols, people in profile, trees, and boats).

People in this piece are rigid. In fact, they do not seem to move, but on the contrary, seem to be strangely paralyzed, paralleling the furniture of Van Gogh’s bedroom. Strangely, Van Gogh’s furniture seems to be even more “alive” than the people in the Seurat’s painting. The two painters did not have the same approach when they decided which colors they wanted to illuminate their canvases; while Van Gogh was guided by his emotions and instant feelings, Seurat carefully analyzed the colors and “meticulously calculated values. ” But in both pieces, Van Gogh and Seurat express their sense of organization by making objects, forms, motifs and colors coherent. To conclude, the mesmerizing, luminous colors, and the well organized motifs of the depiction of Van Gogh’s bedroom, were not the game of chance. Everything in this painting seems to echo the emotions of Van Gogh, expressing at the same time his happiness in Arles and the great peace and tranquility he felt there, but also his desire to find his soul mate, with who he could share his home and thus, reach happiness certainly even more.

Painting: Vincent Van Gogh, Bedroom in Arles essay

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