Three Bedrooms, Three Visits- Part 1

The Chicago Art Institute is featuring an exhibit on the three bedroom paintings of Vincent van Gogh. It is generally considered an art No-No to paint the same thing over and over, but when it comes to the celebrity culture of Van Gogh, most rules don’t apply.

Vincent van Gogh painted three canvases of his bedroom in Arles. These works now reside in Amsterdam, Chicago, and Paris. The first one (Amsterdam) he painted while waiting for Gauguin to come stay with him in southern France. The other two paintings were made when Van Gogh was admitted into an insane asylum. The Paris painting is smaller than the Amsterdam or Chicago works, this smaller one was painted as a gift for his mother.


Although the paintings are of the exact same subject matter, there are subtle differences in brush strokes, pictures on the walls, use of color, and of course the ‘sane and hopeful’ versus ‘insane and despairing’ mind sets make a great story. Plus, there is a high-tech forensics analysis to determine which painting came first.

View I. The Belated Birthday Celebration: Wednesday, lunch time

I go with friend J. to the exhibit as a belated birthday present. J has already seen the exhibit, but this is my first time. We walk straight to the exhibit hall and go right in. There is a crowd of people, but about the same size group as the Magritte and Lichenstein retrospectives I have seen in years past. Crowded, but easily navigable and I can read all the explanatory side captions pasted on the wall next to the painting’s label.

There are explanatory panels on the way in, then a narrow hall which hosts a time line featuring Van Gogh’s many domiciles pinging back and forth from the Netherlands, England, and France. The narrative emphasizes the many moves and how Arles was special because it was Van Gogh’s first adult ‘home’- most of the time he was couch surfing with friends, family, or co-religionists. I suspect he may have been searching for the ‘geographic cure’ to settle his troubled mind.

Next we proceed to an open room that has the paintings which greatly influenced him, mostly Millet’s peasants. There are a few of Van Gogh’s early paintings (birds’ nests, thatched cottage, night scene outside his parent’s home). No potato eaters, but this is the time period. His philosophy was the paintings should ‘look like they were painted from the dirt upon which he stood”. They are dark and glum and if he had kept painting like this no one would have ever heard of Vincent van Gogh.

The second room documents Van Gogh’s move to Paris and his discovery of color. Also new influences are brought on board. Instead of dirt, we have Japanese wood block prints and ¬†celebrity death bedrooms from the Paris newspapers. Van Gogh’s paintings are starting to collect color, pattern and momentum. His still lives concentrate on books, fruits, and boots.

Third room is the move to Arles in southern France. Much warmer weather, a plein air painter can paint year-round and not be subject to the rain, fog, mist and drizzle so characteristic of the Brittany coast. Lost of big paintings of Arles, public park, the land lady, and Van Gogh’s chair as well as Gauguin’s presumptive chair. A few very large pencil sketches of the garden and an example of Vincent’s letter to his brother Theo- an essential provenance when Vincent includes thumbnail sketches of the paintings he has just finished!

J is wondering with all this love and hope Van Gogh is demonstrating for Gauguin whether this is a gay romance. I tell her, “Maybe. But I think it is more of a guru-hero worship kind of thing. Gauguin is the messianic savior figure who is going to inspire Van Gogh and the two of them will set up a painting school. This is no different than shaykh worship.”

The fourth room is darkened, with two short movies illlustrating Van Gogh’s correspondence (hopeful attitude and decorating ideas) as well as a recreation of Van Gogh’s bedroom, as per the paintings, but blank spots where Gauguin’s bedroom would be and the two spare rooms on that floor (no photographic or other references available). We do know that all those sunflower paintings he did were jammed into one room. Van Gogh wrote that he wanted it to look like “a lady’s boudoir”. Can you imagine walking into a room which would be floor to ceiling covered in sunflower paintings? Each one slightly different, but still, all those huge sunflowers?

Next room is the bedroom breakdown- how each painting is slightly different, the three paintings themselves, a short film about the forensic methods (x-ray, raking light, microscopic analysis of pigment and canvas) and another short film focusing on the difference , screen split three ways to simultaneously examine water pitchers, window, chair, floor.

The last two rooms are the aftermath of Gauguin’s departure and post-ear incident. A night cafe with tables is set up in one room. Instead of absinthe, you can look at art books of Van Gogh collections. A different room is set up with paintings Van Gogh did while at the asylum in Arles, grim yellow buildings, and three smaller paintings that Van Gogh did near the end of his life at the asylum north of Paris where Theo could keep a better eye on him.

After the exhibit I treat J to lunch at the Art Institute Cafe.

When I return home I think to myself, “How did we ever even hear about this guy? He wasn’t selling during his life, and then his brother/dealer died less than a year later. Who was going to promote his work? Isn’t this just as big a story? Why is no one telling that story?”

No one tells that story because it is a woman’s story. Along with legacy builders Constanze Mozart and Mary Shelley, please add the name Johanna van Gogh-Bonger.

A quick Wikipedia search reveals that it was Theo van Gogh’s wife, Johanna Bonger (and much later their son -Vincent’s nephew) who organized Van Gogh exhibits and kept building the legacy. Johanna had only been married to Theo for a couple years when he died, leaving her with about 200 of Vincent’s canvases. Everyone told her they were worthless and she should just get rid of them. But she didn’t do that. She moved back to the Netherlands, opened a boardinghouse, and on the side arranged exhibits and loans of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings to anyone she could in the art world. Central to building interest in Vincent van Gogh’s legacy was the three volumes of letters Vincent wrote to Theo, letters which Johanna edited, translated and published in the early 20th century.


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