Close my eyes.
And feel the painter creating every single brushstroke in front of me. Feel each emotion they express by putting that mark on the canvas.
Whenever I see a painting on its canvas rather than on a computer screen or a textbook page, I take a deep breath and close my eyes. All I can imagine is the painter in the museum with me, painting that very masterpiece. I can always see them standing in the room; I can feel them paint every brushstroke. I had never thought about the fact that I never imagined myself inside the painting. This past spring break, however, at the Art Institute of Chicago’s exhibition of Van Gogh’s bedroom paintings, I felt for the first time that I was in the painted room.
Maybe I am not giving enough credit to the exhibition when I say that I felt like I was in Van Gogh’s bedroom. The exhibition gave every visitor a peek into Van Gogh’s world, as we entered the recreation of the main details in his bedroom. The exhibition provided a literal window into Van Gogh’s everyday life, as they had constructed a window into the recreated room. They had built a replica of the bedroom itself, with the bed and the two chairs and the small table and all the other small and delicate details. They had also created multiple presentations that let visitors virtually explore the bedroom. I came to best understand the differences among the three variations of his bedroom paintings, both visually and conceptually, through the Art Institute of Chicago’s creation of an interactive presentation that allowed each visitor to touch one detail of each painting, and it would bring up the differences in that one point.
Since all three of these paintings were originally displayed in different museums – one in the Art Institute of Chicago, one in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and the third version in the Musée D’Orsay in Paris – it was already a privilege to get to see them side by side. This is the first time this is happening in North America. That being said, the real honor came in understanding the significance of each detail and difference, as he turned this both mundane yet personally meaningful subject into something magical.
Van Gogh was an artist that turned his pain into beauty, no matter the subject he was painting. He transformed loneliness and feeling misunderstood into something powerful, moving and dynamic. His paintings feel hopeful despite the many disappointments he had to endure. Only the subtle changes in some of his paintings suggest the sadness he was facing. This is what his power as an artist comes from. Van Gogh could paint the most mundane topic, a bedroom, and still make you feel everything that he was feeling about that space and his life. He could touch feelings that you forgot you had. He could make you understand him with the smallest detail, the color he chose or his style. And in return, he could make you feel understood.
Van Gogh painted the first version of the Bedroom, which now belongs to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, after he moved into his “Yellow House” in Arles in 1888. This building on its own embodies Van Gogh’s lifelong hopes: hopes of turning the yellow house into a place for artists to come and stay, where they could create artwork, discuss art, and meet other artists. Unfortunately, it eventually started to embody his disappointments, since this dream never came true. Both the smaller details as well as the overall style in the first version speak for Van Gogh’s goals as an artist.
His style was highly influenced by Japanese art prints. The fact that he tried to remove almost every shadow in the painting’s first version speaks volumes for his aim to give it the feel of a Japanese print. The flatter application of the paint on the surface also serves this same purpose. This application style is especially apparent in the way he decided to paint his bed, as he painted an apparent and contrasting outline with roughly sketched hues that stand out individually rather than blending into each other. (don’t let the green patch under it fool you, for that is deteriorating and gives us a clue as to why he painted the second iteration of the work).
In contrast, the second and third versions of the bedroom, both painted in 1889, have bolder and more textural brushstrokes. They give the painting more depth and less of a print-like look. The fact that he used less contrasting colors, especially while outlining the bed and the chair, also drives the viewer to understand that his intentions had changed. We can see that he made some details more distinct in the back corner of the bedroom as well in the small table and the items on top of it. In the first version of the painting, you can barely see the items on top. In addition to trying to replicate the Japanese print style, this effect shows us that Van Gogh was still trying to figure out the placement of objects in his painting. This becomes especially clear when the three versions are next to each other. The items on top of the table were painted while the background was still wet – which is also why they are harder to see- however the items in the second and the third versions are very detailed, as they were painted at the same time as the background. This in particular shows that, at this point, Van Gogh knew what he was doing in terms of composition, and was recreating a painting that showed an important part of his life.
That being said, another difference that usually goes unnoticed is in the portraits on the wall. The fact that he gave each version different portraits is truly mesmerizing. The first version includes portraits of Eugene Boch and Milliet. These are two artists that he admired dearly. Integrating their portraits into the painting along with using Japanese print style shows that Van Gogh was bringing together all of his inspirations in the first version. Due to the style and this small detail, the first one is a painting of hope that he had for the future, the future of art and his own art. Yet, we see the tone change in the second one. The main reason for him doing the second painting is that the first one was getting ruined. The fact that he changed the style and the portraits shows that he had lost hope in the “Yellow House” and everything that it represented for him. Instead of the portraits of the artist, he puts a portrait of himself and an unidentified woman’s portrait. The third one has similar portraits, yet this time instead of a self-portrait with facial hair he includes one of himself clean-shaven. Perhaps this is the best clue that he was sending that one to his mother!
After having learned all of these details, I go back to stand in front of the paintings once more. I study each and every one of them, look at the differences, the details, the brushstrokes. Then, I take a few steps back so as to see all three of them together.
Close my eyes.
And feel Van Gogh’s hope about life and art, disappointment of not accomplishing his dream, and pain of never getting to experience true and pure lov