Behind the Paint: ‘The bedroom at Arles’ Van Gogh

van-gogh self-portrait

I am introducing this new category ‘Behind the paint’.  I hope it will prove popular.  it will be attempt to interpret popular paintings.  the clues are there – it’s just a case of looking.  When we go to a gallery, of course we look at the paintings and appreciate the composition, the colours the way that the artists has captured or depicted the subject.  We also are aware of how the painting affects us emotionally.  But we also have to bear in mind the era these paintings were painted in and the people they were painted for to set that painting in it’s context.

van gogh yellow house at arles 1888

We know such a lot about Van Gogh and his life that every time we look at one of his paintings we think of his suffering – indeed sometimes we cannot separate them.  ‘The bedroom at Arles’ was first painted in 1888 (he painted 3 versions).

van Gogh bedroom at Arles

This version is his third one.  He painted this one for his mother.  He was recovering from a nervous breakdown in an asylum in St Remy.  Ten months after he painted this, the artist was dead.  He committed suicide.

Van Gogh worked with thick impasto – brushstrokes are always visible.  He is another painter who liked to squeeze paint directly from the tube.  he got through a lot of paint – especially yellow.   He liked to complete a painting in one day.  Poor Theo, his brother was always being asked for money to buy more paint. 

clearly defined brushstrokes

If you look around the room you will notice that there are two of nearly everything.  Pillows, water jugs, bottles, chairs. It has been said that because the first version of this painting was painted whilst Van Gogh was awaiting the arrival of Gauguin, the painting can be seen as Van Gogh’s unfulfilled wish for partnership and friendship with his fellow painter.  Alas, Van Gogh was in for a rude awakening regarding Gauguin.  Both artists proved much to volotile to really get along.

Gauguin and Van Gogh a volatile parnership

The chair was painted yellow.  Originally it was made of white wood.   Van Gogh loved the colour yellow: it symbolised happiness, sunlight and warmth to him.  The pictures over the bed are different in all three versions of the picture.  But in this version it is easy to see Van Gogh’s self-portrait besides his sister Wil.

the first version
the third and last version

The original floor was a red brick colour.    The last version has a sombre feel to it.  He was always aware of the emotional impact of colour and expressed himself through it. The red bedspread really affects the mood of the painting – without it the picture has a completely different feel.  If you cover it up you will see.  Van Gogh depicts the white room in blue/violet hue creating harmonies with the greens.  this The blue/violet hue of the room (which is really painted white) creates harmonies with the greens.  This particularly contrasts with the bed and chairs.

Japanese influenced

The outlines are dark – a trademark of Van Gogh’s. The artist was very much influenced by Japanese wood block prints.  He loved these simplified designs and their areas of flat colour – you can see these influences in his work.

The bed is a simple peasant’s bed.  He loved it because it was rustic.   He took this bed with him when he moved to Auvers.  It was the bed he died in. 

VanGogh gallery here


12 thoughts on “Behind the Paint: ‘The bedroom at Arles’ Van Gogh

  1. I believe I have been more intrigued and looked longer at Van Gogh paintings than any. I have two books on him and frequently page through them. Thank-you for this post.

  2. He is fascinating and through his frequent letters, and about 900 paintings so well documented. I would say he, Dali and Picasso are the most famous artists. I was lucky enough to see a version of his ‘sunflowers’ once at the 2000 ‘Encounters’ exhibition at the National Gallery. Contemporary artists reinterpreted a famous painting of their choice. Ron Kitaj chose Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ by painting a fat business man with a cigar. Unfortunately I can’t find an image of this without scanning my exhibition book. I’ve only just found out that Ron Kataj died in 2007. I like his work very much
    Thanks Leslie as always for your comments and for you taking the time to read my posts, it is always appreciated!

  3. I’ve always thought that for painting, Van Gogh’s time period was one of the most exciting moments in art. I like your “Behind the paint” idea and glad you mentioned squeezing paint out of a tube! How easy it is to forget how this simple technological triumph freed artists to pursue their ideas. Besides, have you ever tried grinding your own colors before?

    One last thought about Van Gogh, it’s fascinating to see how his art and reputation has been affected by other media. I have read that the prices for his paintings started to escalate once the film version of “Lust for Life” hit the big screen. Prior to that, fewer people had heard his story.

  4. Thanks artistatexit10! Yes, I think this is the point that Ron B Kitaj (see above post) was trying to put across when he transcribed Van Gogh’s sunflowers. the business man puffing on a cigar sat in Van Goghs simple rustic chair – how art can lose its meaning when it becomes a commodity. You have a very good point about ‘lust for Life’ bringing his story to all. His suffering and his art have become entangled I think. It seems you can’t have one without the other, I think it makes it harder to view the work objectively sometimes BUT even if he had become successful, the vitality and passion of his work must surely stand by itself. Any art that ‘speaks’ or affects will always live on. thanks for visting and your very valid comments – its greatly appreciated!

  5. I have always had a soft spot for Van Gogh. I love the colours and the almost tactile nature of his paintings. Plus, learning of the psychological journey he travelled helps us I think to appreciate the emotion that oozes so beautifully from his work. Thank you for prompting me to revisit my appreciation of him !

  6. Glad you enjoyed it Colleen. I think everyone somehow or other empathises with Van Gogh, he’s weakness’s and foibles make him more human, and therefore more lovable I think. Whenever we think of great artists (for example Michealangelo) they are so lofty and inaccessible (admired yes) but we don’t have the fondness for them as a person. Van Gogh seems to be loved, understood and admired. Gauguin also talented, and volatile comes across (to me) as unlikeable though I admire his work. Van Gogh has won the hearts of the people and that’s no mean feat. Thanks for visiting Colleen – its very much appreciated!

  7. Ah Echo, now what an interesting connection we have here–not just Van Gogh–but THIS particular painting. Okay–I never ‘got’ Van Gogh until I saw a version of this painting in Paris. Seeing the original on a wall I was able to play with viewing from different distances and angles–which is difficult to do with printed book materials. Then his sense of color and LIGHT struck me and I realized just how much he was aware of and trying to share the state of light –and how it affects color–with others. He was trying to capture precisely what photographers attempt–Light–not at any moment but at specific moments in specific places–Moments that will never be repeated because each is unique. Since then I have ‘loved’ Vincent’s work. I am lucky to have access to seeing one his renderings of Olive Trees at the Nelson. But this bedroom was my gateway into his world of perception. Hmm. Lovely post. Merci.

  8. I couldn’t agree with you more 47Whitebuffalo! Nothing beats seeing the real thing – ever! and you make a very good point about the perspective that this affords. You know, you may be right about the light’ and Van Gogh, and whats more you FELT it! Very lucky being able to see the Olive trees. What a painter and visionary he was – and how beloved he is to most people, probably the most loved. Thanks for visiting and your comments are always encouraging and very much appreciated!

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