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Art Institute explores Van Gogh’s bedroom and a sense of home

Vincent Van Gogh painted dozens of self-portraits. But perhaps the most telling portrait of them all – the one that captured the heart and soul and yearnings of this Dutch-born artist best of all – is the one in which he does not actually appear, even if his presence is felt everywhere. It is the portrait of his bedroom in Arles – that sunny, picturesque city in the Provence region of southern France where he lived from 1888 to 1889, and produced more than 300 paintings and drawings.

“Van Gogh’s bedroom in Arles is probably the most instantly recognized bedroom in all of art history,” said Gloria Groom, Chair of European Painting and Sculpture, and David and Mary Winton Green Curator at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Groom has devised the museum’s new exhibition, “Van Gogh’s Bedrooms,” which will run Feb. 14 – May 10, and which, for the first time in North America, will bring together all three distinct versions of the iconic work. Two are the identical size – one dating from 1888, on a rare loan from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, and the other, made the following year, is in the collection of the Art Institute. The third, on loan from the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, is a smaller version (what the artist termed “a reduction”), that the painter made as a souvenir for his mother and sister.

Along with an in-depth study of documentary, scientific, and physical evidence relating to all three pictures, this exhibit (to be seen only in Chicago) will feature approximately 36 additional works by the artist, including paintings, drawings, illustrated letters, and a selection of books and other ephemera known to have been in Van Gogh’s possession.

Van Gogh’s “The Bedroom” (1888), in the collection of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
Van Gogh’s “The Bedroom” (1888), in the collection of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

And that is not all. As Groom explained: “Enriching our exploration of these works will be several interactive presentations, including a digitally enhanced reconstruction of Van Gogh’s bedroom – with furniture to scale in a room that matches the footprint of Vincent’s. This will enable viewers to experience his state of mind, and the physical reality of the space that so inspired him. Other digital components will focus on significant recent scientific research related to the three ‘Bedroom’ paintings.”


When: Feb. 14 – May 10

Where: Art Institute of Chicago,

111 S. Michigan

Tickets: $20-$25

Info: (312) 443-3600;

Van Gogh moved to Arles in February 1888, seeking a respite from Paris and his ravaged health. He initially rented a room at the Hôtel-Restaurant Carrel, but in May he signed a lease in the eastern wing of the Yellow House at No. 2 Place Lamartine. Although the rooms took quite some time to repair and furnish, he was able to use part of the space as a studio.

“Van Gogh died in 1890, so the work he did in Arles [including such defining paintings as “The Night Cafe” and “Paul Gauguin’s Armchair”] is in many ways a culmination,” said Groom. “It also was the only time in his life when he actually got it together enough to have his own place – a real domestic situation with two rooms on the ground floor, and two upstairs, though no bathroom.”

“We know he even bought 12 straw chairs for the place, so clearly there was the idea that he would share the place with other artists, particularly his friend, Paul Gauguin [whose stormy residence in the house, for nine weeks in late 1888, was the subject of a major 2001 show at the Art Institute, “Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South”]. Plus, being away from Paris, he was freed from all the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist labels and could be himself.”

Van Gogh’s “Self-Portrait” (1887) in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Van Gogh’s “Self-Portrait” (1887) in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Look quickly at the paintings of the just slightly off-kilter, color-saturated bedroom – with its narrow bed and humble furnishings (two chairs, a night table and a little coat rack with blue work shirts and a sunhat hanging from the pegs) – and they might appear the same, but a closer examination reveals subtle differences.

“One is more red, while the other [in the Chicago collection, painted while the artist was at an asylum in Saint-Remy] is more blue-green in tone,” said Groom. “Also, a couple of different pictures hang on the wall in each. What is so interesting is that at first glance you might get a jumpy, erratic feeling. But I’ve come to see this bedroom as a complete expression of a place where he really felt at home. The exhibition as a whole follows this theme, and concludes with Van Gogh’s final residence in Auvers-sur-Oise, where he painted a series of cottages.”

Sadly, Van Gogh’s beloved Yellow House no longer exists.

“It was seriously damaged in an air-raid by the Allies in June, 1944, as they tried to blow up a nearby bridge on the Rhone,” said Groom. “But luckily we still have blueprints from the 1920s that show the configuration of the house.”

And what about those straw chairs?

“We found someone in Europe who makes them,” said Groom. “But our source must remain secret.”


Among the special activities related to this exhibition will be a lecture (6 p.m. March 17 in Griffin Court and 6 p.m. March 3 in Fullerton Hall), about how Van Gogh has been depicted by filmmakers over time, with a screening of Alain Resnais’ 1948 film, “Van Gogh” to follow. Additional screenings (in the Price Auditorium) will include: Paul Cox’s “Vincent” (1987) at 6 p.m. April 7, “Lust for Life” (1956) at 1 p.m. April 8; “Vincent & Theo “(1990), at 1 p.m. April 16; “Van Gogh” (1991) at 1 p.m. April 23; and “The Eyes of Van Gogh” (2005) at 1 p.m. April 30. A performance, “Van Gogh’s Letters,” is scheduled for April 14 at 6 p.m. and April 17 at 2 p.m. in Fullerton Hall, with a cast of Chicago actors reenacting the life of the artist using language and scenes drawn from his letters, and those of his family after the artist left home, and before he moved to southern France.