Vincent van Gogh - Vincent's Bedroom in Arles 1889

Vincent's Bedroom in Arles 1889
Vincent's Bedroom in Arles
Oil on canvas 56.5 x 74.0 cm. Saint-Rémy: September, 1889
Paris: Musee d'Orsay

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From the Musée d'Orsay, Paris, France:

Van Gogh produced three, almost identical paintings on the theme of his bedroom. The first, in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, was executed in October 1888, and damaged during a flood that occurred while the painter was in hospital in Arles. Almost a year later, Van Gogh made two copies of it: one, the same size, is now in the Art Institute in Chicago; the other, in the Musée d'Orsay, produced for his family in Holland, is smaller.

First version
October 1888
oil/canvas 72x90cm
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Second version
September 1889
oil/canvas 72x90cm
Art Institute of Chicago
Third version
end September 1889
oil/canvas 57,5x74cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris

In a letter to his brother Theo, Vincent explained what had provoked him to paint such a picture: he wanted to express the tranquillity, and bring out the simplicity of his bedroom using the symbolism of colours. Thus, he described: "the pale, lilac walls, the uneven, faded red of the floor, the chrome-yellow chairs and bed, the pillows and sheet in very pale lime green, the blood-red blanket, the orange-coloured wash stand, the blue wash basin, and the green window", stating "I wanted to express absolute repose with these different colours".
Through these various colours, Van Gogh is referring to Japan, to its crêpe paper and its prints. He explained: "The Japanese lived in very simple interiors, and what great artists have lived in that country" And although, in the eyes of the Japanese, a bedroom decorated with paintings and furniture would not really seem very simple, for Vincent it was "an empty bedroom with a wooden bed and two chairs". All the same he does achieve a certain sparseness through his composition made up almost entirely of straight lines, and through a rigorous combination of coloured surfaces, which compensate for the instability of the perspective.

The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

To Theo van Gogh. Arles, Thursday, 17 January 1889.
My dear Theo,
Thanks for your kind letter and for the 50-franc note it contained. As to answering all your questions, can you do it yourself, at the moment I don’t feel up to it. On reflection I do indeed want to seek a solution, but I must re-read your letter again &c.
But before discussing what I might or might not spend in a whole year, it would perhaps put us on track to review nothing but the present, current month for a moment.
In any case it has been completely lamentable, and indeed I would count myself fortunate if finally you might pay some serious attention to the way things are and have been for so long.
But what can one do, unfortunately it’s complicated in several ways, my paintings are worthless, they cost me an extraordinary amount, it’s true, perhaps sometimes even in blood and brain. I won’t press the point, and what do you want me to say about it. Let’s get back in any case to the present month and speak only of money.
On 23 December there was still a louis and 3 sous in the cash-box. That same day I received the 100-franc note from you.
Here are the expenses
Given to Roulin to pay the charwoman
for the month of December 20 Francs.
same for 1st fortnight of January 10 ,, Fr 30
Paid to hospital 21 ,,
to the nurses who dressed the wound 10
On returning here paid for a table, a gas heater &c.,
which had been lent to me and which I then took on account 20
Paid for having all the bedding, bloodstained linen &c. laundered 12 ,50
Various purchases like a dozen brushes, a hat &c. &c. let’s say 10
Thus we’ve already arrived, on the day I left hospital or the day after, at an involuntary expenditure on my part of 103.50, to which it must be added that then on the first day I cheerfully went to have dinner with Roulin at the restaurant, completely reassured and with no fear of renewed anguish. In short, the result of all that was that I was broke around the 8th. But one or two days after that I borrowed 5 francs. We were barely at the tenth. I was hoping for a letter from you around the tenth, but as that letter only arrived today, 17 January, the interval has been a fast of the most rigorous sort, all the more painfully so because my recovery couldn’t take place under those conditions. Nevertheless, I’ve started work again and I already have 3 studies done in the studio plus the portrait of Mr Rey, which I gave him as a keepsake.
So this time again there’s no more serious harm than a little more suffering and relative anguish. And I retain all good hope. But I feel weak and a little anxious and fearful. Which will pass, I hope, as I regain my strength.

Rey told me that being very impressionable was enough to have had what I had as regards the crisis, and that currently I was only anaemic, but that really I ought to feed myself up. But myself, I took the liberty of telling Mr Rey that if currently the first thing for me was to recover my strength, if by pure chance or misunderstanding it had just happened again that I’d had to keep to a rigorous one-week fast, if in similar circumstances he had seen many madmen quite calm and capable of working – and if not then would he deign to remember occasionally that for the moment I myself am not yet mad.
Now, in these payments that I made, is there anything unwarranted, extravagant or exaggerated in these expenses, considering that the whole house was turned upside down by this adventure, and all the linen and my clothes soiled? If I paid what was owing to people almost as poor as myself as soon as I got back, is there an error on my part or could I have economized more?
Now today, the 17th, I receive 50 francs at last. Out of this I first pay the 5 francs borrowed from the café owner, then for 10 refreshments taken during this last week on credit, which makes fr. 7.50
I still have to pay for the linen brought back from the hospital, and then for this past week, for the repair of shoes and of a pair of trousers, certainly all in all something like 5
Wood and coal still to be paid for December, and to be bought again, not less than 4
Charwoman 2nd fortnight of January 10
Tomorrow morning when I’ve cleared this amount I’ll have left, net Fr. 23.50
It’s the 17th today, there are still 13 days left to get through.
Question: how much can I spend per day? Next there must be added the fact that you sent 30 francs to Roulin, out of which he paid the 21.50 for the rent for December.
There you are, my dear brother, the account for the current month. It isn’t finished.
We now come to the expenses occasioned by a telegram from Gauguin which I’ve already reproached him quite formally for having sent.
Are the expenses thus wrongly incurred less than 200 francs?
Does Gauguin himself claim to have acted brilliantly in this?
Look, I won’t press the point any more about the absurdity of that course of action. Let’s suppose that I was as distraught as could be, why then wasn’t the illustrious pal calmer.......... I shan’t labour this point any more.
I can’t praise you enough for paying Gauguin in such a way that he couldn’t but congratulate himself on the relations he’s had with us.
Unfortunately, that’s another expense, perhaps more sizeable than it should have been, but anyway, I glimpse hope in it.
Mustn’t he, or at least shouldn’t he begin to see a little that we weren’t his exploiters, but that on the contrary we were anxious to safeguard his existence, his possibility of work and........ and... his integrity.
If that’s unworthy of the grandiose prospectuses for artists’ associations (which he proposed and to which he still holds) in the way you know, if that’s unworthy of his other castles in the air.
Why then not consider him as not responsible for the sorrows and damage which unconsciously he could have caused us in his blindness, you as much as me. If currently that thesis still seems too bold to you – I won’t press the point – but let’s wait and see.
He’s had previous experience with what he calls ‘banking in Paris’ and believes that he’s clever at it... Perhaps you and I are decidedly not so very curious in that regard. All the same, this isn’t in complete disagreement with certain passages of our earlier correspondence. If Gauguin were to examine himself properly in Paris or have himself examined by a specialist doctor, my word I don’t really know what the result of it would be.
Several times over I’ve seen him do things that you or I wouldn’t permit ourselves to do, having consciences that feel things differently – I’ve heard two or three things said of him in the same vein – but I, who saw him at very, very close quarters, I believed him led by his imagination, by pride perhaps but – – quite irresponsible. This conclusion doesn’t imply that I firmly recommend that you listen to him in all circumstances. But in the matter of settling his account I see that you acted with a higher conscience, and so I believe that we have nothing to fear from being led into errors of ‘banking in Paris’ by him. But as for him... upon my word, let him do what he wants, let him have his independences????? (in what way does he consider his character independent), his opinions... and let him go his own way, as it seems to him that he knows it better than we do.
I find it quite odd that he’s claiming a painting of sunflowers from me, offering me in exchange I suppose, or as a gift, a few studies that he left here. I’ll send back his studies — which will probably have uses for him that they certainly wouldn’t have for me. But for the moment I’m keeping my canvases here, and I’m categorically keeping those sunflowers of mine.
He already has two of them, let that be enough for him. And if he’s unhappy with the exchange he made with me he can take back his little canvas of Martinique and his portrait that he sent me from Brittany, giving me back for his part both my portrait and my two canvases of sunflowers which he took in Paris. So if he ever raises this subject again, what I’ve said is clear enough.
How can Gauguin claim to have feared disturbing me by his presence when he would have difficulty denying that he knew I asked for him continually, and people told him time and again that I was insisting on seeing him that very moment?
Precisely to tell him to keep it between himself and me without disturbing you. He wouldn’t listen.
It wearies me to recapitulate all this and calculate and recalculate things of this kind.
I’ve tried in this letter to show you the difference that exists between my net expenses which come directly from me and those for which I am less responsible. I was sorry that just at that moment you should have those expenses, which were of no benefit to anyone.
What will happen next, I’ll see if my position is tenable as I regain my strength. I so dread a change or moving house precisely because of new expenses. For quite a long time I’ve never been able to catch my breath completely. I’m not giving up work, because at moments it’s going well, and I believe that it’s precisely with patience that I’ll arrive at this result of being able to recover the previous expenses with paintings I’ve done.
Roulin’s going to leave, and as early as the 21st, he’s going to be employed in Marseille.
The increase in salary is minimal, and he’ll have to leave his wife and his children for a while, who won’t be able to follow him until much later because the expenses of a whole family would be heavier in Marseille.
It’s a promotion for him, but it’s a very, very meagre consolation the government gives in this way to such an employee after so many years of work.
And at heart I think they, he and his wife, are still very, very upset. Roulin has very often kept me company during this past week.
I completely agree with you that we mustn’t meddle in doctors’ issues that have absolutely nothing to do with us.
Just because you wrote a note to Mr Rey saying you would introduce him in Paris, I thought you meant to Rivet.
I didn’t think I was doing anything compromising by saying to Mr Rey myself that if he went to Paris it would give me great pleasure if he wanted to take a painting from me to Mr Rivet as a keepsake. Naturally I didn’t speak of anything else, but what I said is that I would always regret not being a doctor, and that those who believe painting is beautiful would do well to see in it only a study of nature.
All the same, it will continue to be a pity that Gauguin and I were perhaps too quick to drop the question of Rembrandt and light which we embarked upon.
Are De Haan and Isaäcson still there, they mustn’t get discouraged.
After my illness I’ve naturally had a very sensitive eye. I have re-looked at De Haan’s undertaker, of which he was kind enough to send me a photograph. Well, it seems to me that there’s some real Rembrandt spirit in that figure, which seems lit by the reflection of a light emanating from the open tomb before which the said undertaker stands like a sleep-walker. It’s there in a very subtle way. I don’t tackle the question with charcoal and he, De Haan, has taken as a means of expression this very charcoal, which is again a colourless material.
I would really like De Haan to see a study of mine of a lighted candle and two novels (one yellow, the other pink) placed on an empty armchair (Gauguin’s armchair, to be precise), no. 30 canvas in red and green. I’ve just been working on the pendant again today, my own empty chair, a deal chair with a pipe and a tobacco pouch.18 In these two studies, as in others, I myself sought an effect of light with bright colour – De Haan would probably understand what I’m seeking if you read him what I write to you on this subject.
However long this letter may now be, in which I’ve tried to analyze the month and in which I complain a little about the strange phenomenon of Gauguin preferring not to speak to me again while at the same time making himself scarce, it remains for me to add a few words of appreciation.
What’s good about him is that he knows how to apportion expenditure from day to day marvellously well.
Whereas myself, I’m often absent-minded, preoccupied with reaching a good end-point.
He has more of a sense for balancing money for each day than I do.
But his weakness is that by a sudden attack and animal-like impulse he upsets everything he was setting up.
Now, does one remain at one’s post once one has taken it, or does one desert it? I don’t judge anyone in this, hoping not to be condemned myself should I lack the strength. But if Gauguin has so much real virtue and such capacities for doing good, how is he going to employ himself? As for me, I’ve ceased to be able to follow his actions, and I halt silently but with a question mark.

From time to time he and I have exchanged ideas on French art, on Impressionism...
It now seems to me impossible, at least quite improbable, that Impressionism will organize itself and calm down.
Why will the same not happen as happened in England at the time of the Pre-Raphaelites?
The association is dissolved.
Perhaps I take all these things too much to heart, and I’m perhaps too sad about them. Has Gauguin ever read Tartarin sur les Alpes, and does he remember Tartarin’s illustrious pal from Tarascon who had such an imagination that in one fell swoop he imagined an entire imaginary Switzerland?
Does he remember the knot in a rope rediscovered high up in the Alps after the fall?
And you, who wish to know how things happened, have you ever read the whole of Tartarin?
That would teach you to recognize Gauguin pretty well.
I urge you in all seriousness to look at that passage in Daudet’s book again.
During your trip here were you able to notice the study that I painted of Tarascon’s diligence, which as you know is mentioned in Tartarin the lion-hunter?
And then do you remember Bompard in Numa Roumestan and his happy imagination?
This is what we have here, though of another kind, Gauguin has a fine and frank and absolutely complete imagination of the south, with that imagination he’s going to work in the north! My word, we may yet see some more funny things!
And now dissecting the situation in all boldness, nothing prevents us from seeing him as the little Bonaparte tiger of Impressionism as regards... I don’t know quite how to say this, his vanishing let’s say from Arles is comparable or parallel to the Return from Egypt of the little corporal mentioned above, who also went to Paris afterwards. And who always left the armies in the lurch.
Happily Gauguin, I and other painters aren’t yet armed with machine guns and other very harmful engines of war. I, for one, am quite determined to try to remain armed only with my brush and my pen.
With loud shouts Gauguin nevertheless demanded from me in his last letter ‘His fencing masks and gloves’ hidden in the little room of my little yellow house.
I’ll make haste to send him these childish things by parcel post. Hoping that he’ll never use more serious things.
He’s physically stronger than we are, so his passions must also be much stronger than ours. Then he’s the father of children, then he has his wife and his children in Denmark, and at the same time he wants to go right to the other end of the globe to Martinique. It’s horrifying, all the vice versa of incompatible desires and needs which that must cause him. I had dared to assure him that if he’d stayed quietly with us, working here in Arles without wasting money, earning it, since you were busying yourself with his paintings, his wife would certainly have written to him and would have approved of his quiet life. There’s still more besides, there’s the fact that he was sick and seriously ill, and that it was a question of discovering both the illness and the remedy. Now here his pains had already ceased. Enough for today.
Do you have the address of Laval, Gauguin’s friend? You can tell Laval that I’m very astonished that his friend Gauguin didn’t take a portrait of me which I intended for him, in order to give it to him. I’ll now send it to you and you can let him have it. I have another new one for you too. Thanks again for your letter. Please try and think that it would be really impossible to live for 13 days on the 23.50 francs that I’ll have left. I’ll try to manage with 20 francs which you’d send me next week.
Handshake, I’ll read your letter again and will write to you soon about the other matters.
Ever yours,