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Europe 1800 - 1900

Unit 5: Lesson 4


Van Gogh, The Bedroom

Vincent van Gogh, The Bedroom, 1889, oil on canvas, 29 x 36-5/8 inches / 73.6 x 92.3 cm (Art Institute of Chicago). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

Video transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: "Only here colour is to do everything, and by its simplification a grander style to things is to be suggestive here first of rest, or of sleep in general. In a word, looking at the picture ought to rest the brain, or rather the imagination." DR. BETH HARRIS: So the passage that you just read came from a letter Van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo, and it actually refers to the first version of this painting. But the passage that stands out for me, "in this painting colour has to do everything," applies equally well to this painting. And when I think about that phrase I think about a radical idea that happens in the end of the 19th century with painting. The formal elements-- the color, the lines, the shapes-- painters begin to explore the way that these elements can be expressive on their own. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: What you're talking about is the root of abstraction itself. So it's not that this is representative, it's that the formal qualities of painting itself can have its own experiential aspect, rather like music, which uses pure tone. Color also, form also, could have an emotional value. DR. BETH HARRIS: That's right. That the lines that make up these painting, that the sense of solidity, that the colors, that the harmonies between the colors, the relationship of the shapes-- that these things could suggest an idea or an emotion, regardless of what they represent. Moving away from the idea of art copying the real world. And in this case, the idea that Van Gogh wanted to represent was one of peacefulness and harmony and repose. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: For so many people, they think about Van Gogh's brushwork, and they think about his biography. But listening to the artist's own words you realize that his attention was on the structural qualities and the emotional qualities of color. DR. BETH HARRIS: And although we can see his brushwork in the pillows-- where the paint almost seems to describe the puffiness of the pillows-- and even though there is a sense of the space tilting up and rushing backward too quickly and things seeming slightly askew, I do get that sense, from the painting, of Van Gogh trying to create a world here in this yellow house in Arles, where he had moved from Paris. A place that could be the basis for a community. A place for artists to come and then a place to focus on making art. And there's something about the simplicity of the space that feels so different than the materialism and sophistication of Paris. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: So this is a refuge and a deeply personal one. But he's created the space with such love and such care. He's in a sense inviting us to feel right at home. DR. BETH HARRIS: And love and care in a different way than what we might normally expect. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: The care that I meant was the care that's based on his observation, his experience in this room, his having touched that seat, his having slept in that bed. His intimate experience that he's been able to convey to us with an extraordinary immediacy. DR. BETH HARRIS: Think for a second of the sophistication of the Paris art world, and the expectation of a Parisian audience. And look at that wooden nightstand, or toilet table, as he called it in his letter. It looks like it was drawn by a child. It has no modulation. It has blue outlines, and the color is otherwise flat. The perspective doesn't make sense. I think this painting must have looked like it was made by an artist who wasn't trained properly. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And yet, here's an artist who has really worked through a catalog of the styles of the 19th century. Beginning for instance, with the art of people like Millet, moving through the impressionists, and then really paying attention to the neo-impressionists, people like Seurat. and here, finding a a direct application of paint that, I think, for Van Gogh felt absolutely authentic. DR. BETH HARRIS: Authenticity is the key word. I think for a lot of artists, including Gauguin at the end of the 1880s and the beginning of the 1890s, this idea of finding authentic experience and that being not the experience of the city. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: This looks back to some of the ideas that surround the work of, say, Courbet, where there's this clear contrast between the sophistication of the city and, in a sense, the truth and directness of the country. And Van Gogh's been able to convey that beautifully. This is a painting that is also meant to be a kind of invitation to his friends in the north, that he was hoping would come down and join him. DR. BETH HARRIS: He has an idea of creating a rather utopian setting for artists to make art away from the city, in some sort of communion with nature. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Van Gogh gives us a kind of extraordinarily sophisticated innocence. [MUSIC PLAYING]