Of the three versions of his bedroom in Arles, Frances, that Vincent van Gogh painted, which do you prefer? The subdued one, with portraits of The Poet and The Lover hanging on the wall by the double bed, from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam? Or the picture executed about eleven months later, in September 1889, in more pronounced brushstrokes, with a self-portrait and a portrait of an unknown woman hanging on the wall by the double bed, that is now owned by the Art Institute of Chicago? What about the slightly smaller canvas, which has a different self-portrait and another portrait of an unknown woman hanging on the wall by the double bed, that was executed about three weeks after the second iteration and is in the collection of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris?
What’s that? You didn’t realize that van Gogh painted three versions of his bedroom in Arles? I hate to admit it, but neither did I. That’s one reason why I was so enthralled by the exhibition “Van Gogh’s Bedrooms,” which is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago. Amazingly, given its blockbuster status, it is a one-off affair—it will not travel.
Besides the trio of versions of the iconic work, there is a drawing of his bedroom that van Gogh sent to his brother Theo in a letter dated October 16, 1888; portraits of Eugène Boch (a.k.a. The Poet) and Lieutenant Paul-Eugène Milliet (a.k.a. The Lover), the two paintings that once hung by the Post-Impressionist’s bed and that Paul Gauguin saw every time he walked through his colleague’s chamber to get to his own bedroom; a landscape known as The Poet’s Garden (1888) of the park that the windows in Gauguin’s room faced; and other paintings, drawings, and ephemera, as well as the results of scientific investigations.
Knowledgeable commentators as well as a general audience have long cherished van Gogh’s bedroom painting. Even the artist named it, along with The Potato Eaters (1885) and one of his sunflower paintings, among his three favorites. About the Art Institute work, art historian Robert Goldwater in 1953 cited “the friendliness of the scene, filled with square, solid objects among which van Gogh was literally at home. The instability of the outside world is gone, and one can imagine the worrying tension of the brows of the Portrait of the Artist relaxing in the atmosphere of this refuge.” And in her World of Art book of 1989, Melissa McQuillan, a former Goldwater student, observed, “The painting itself constructs a domestic ideal, emphasizing security without claustrophobia, filling coolness with warmth, and implying companionship in the duplication and interrelation of furniture.”
“Van Gogh’s Bedrooms,” organized by curator Gloria Groom, the Art Institute’s chair of European painting and sculpture, is the most up-to-date “great works in context” exhibition that’s been mounted by an arts institution. To be sure, the usual suspects are here, but so too are the sort of links you would access if you were doing research at home on your personal computer.
There’s a map tracking the artist’s “restless life: 37 residences, 24 cities, 4 countries, 37 years.” An illustrated timeline reviews “van Gogh’s search for a home.” Japanese prints and prints by Honoré Daumier are on view, and cases contain books van Gogh read, including Emile Zola’s Germinal (1885), as well as a palette the artist used around 1890, three scrunched up tubes of his paint, and a red lacquered box with balls of wood that he once owned. Four paintings by Jean-François Millet and Charles-François Daubigny convey the idea that, had van Gogh not pushed himself, his ebullient work might have ended up looking more like these sedate canvases by his colleagues.
Nevertheless, the pièces de résistance of this exhibition are the up-to-the-minute electronic programs, where past practices enter the world of tomorrow. A large wall divided into three vertical columns projects the same details from the three bedroom paintings side-by-side. It’s mesmerizing. When elements that are only a few inches in size are blown up, you’re able to realize how extensive the variations are among the trio of canvases. It’s not just the foreground chairs and the toiletries on the table that change from one painting to another. Even the pillowcases on the double bed are inflected differently. You can better make out the works of art hanging on the walls of the room, too.
Two interactive tabletop monitors let you choose details you’d like to study further. Nearby, in a video projection, conservators explain what they did and what they learned as they analyzed van Gogh’s three bedroom paintings. For example, the artist originally depicted the whitewashed bedroom in which he slept in violet, not the blue we find today.
In the end, however, what matters the most is the art. And “Van Gogh’s Bedrooms” doesn’t disappoint. With only a few works, Groom has mounted a mini-survey of van Gogh’s career with the focus on places where he lived. Dark paintings from 1885, executed when the artist moved back to his parent’s house in Nuenen, the Netherlands, remind museum visitors what a long way van Gogh traveled in a short space of time to achieve his beloved signature canvases filled with radiant color and light. His parents’ parsonage, as well as the outbuilding next to it where he painted The Potato Eaters, could not look bleaker.
Two years later, in 1887, views of Paris with vast expanses of open sky reveal how much van Gogh’s circumstances had changed. The canvas on which he depicts the roofs of the French capital as seen from the flat in Montmartre that he shared with his brother Theo was originally owned by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the two siblings’ friend and neighbor. Cheery and optimistic, the still life of books in Dutch, French, and English that he enjoyed reading, as well as an arrangement of fresh grapes, lemons, pears, and apples, belies the artist’s frenzied bohemian period spent smoking, drinking, and gadding about.
As it was, nature was van Gogh’s forte. In Arles, bathed in Mediterranean light, the artist fervently depicted the small house with four rooms he rented, as well as the park across the road. For someone who so esteemed literature, it was no small matter that he believed that Petrarch, Dante, and Boccaccio had walked the paths of the gardens his latest home faced. At the Art Institute, other outdoor scenes he later painted in nearby Saint-Rémy-de-Provence and Auvers-sur-Oise, just outside Paris, confirm how he embraced the warmth of the sun, the sound of rustling leaves, and the colors of wild flowers.
The three bedroom scenes offer something different. They hint at the domestic life van Gogh longed to lead. But he had no wife, no children—just an unfulfilled dream. That appears to be what many people have been responding to for more than a century.