Bedroom at Arles – Analysis

“In a word, looking at the picture ought to rest the brain, or rather the imagination.”

Vincent van Gogh’s “Bedroom at Arles,” painted in 1889, was intended to be symbolic of restful peace. A glance at this painting, buzzing with energy and filled with oddities, gives the viewer just the opposite sensation.

The room, though pleasant, all but reels with movement. Whether consciously or not, van Gogh painted the perspective, walls and decorations all atilt, so that we get the impression of a ship’s cabin in a stormy sea. Strangely, the two chairs both face toward the bulky wooden bed, and the furniture blocks the two lilac doors. Paintings on the wall jut into the room as if almost ready to fall off, and the walls themselves are not square. The beveled ceiling and yellow double shutters are whacked off without mercy in the cropping of the canvas, and the whole room seems crowded into one clumsy area toward the window at the back. Yet somehow, the entire effect is somehow quite pleasing.

Before he left Paris in 1888 to go live in the south of France at Arles, Vincent met most of what are now considered the famous Impressionist artists of that period. Moved and excited by their work and ideas, he developed the dream of creating an artists’ commune he labeled “Studio of the South.” The now famous Yellow House in Arles became the focal point for his dream. He readied the Yellow House for his guests, painting still lifes and decorating with the intensity reflected in his artwork.

The artist who became his greatest influencer, closest friend and eventually his downfall, Paul Gauguin, was the first and only member to join the “Studio of the South.” His visit with van Gogh was fraught with tension and he left after just over two months. The two artists disagreed to the point of violent arguments about almost every subject, but especially about painting. During one such argument at the end of Gauguin’s stay, Vincent, a mentally unstable epileptic, heard a voice in his ear saying, “Kill him.” Rather than obey, he cut off most of the offending ear. It was the denouement of an incident that placed him for all time among the ranks of the greats who were unable to cope with life, but nevertheless gifted the world with masterpiece after masterpiece.

Undoubtedly, Vincent’s room did not really look the way he portrayed it. Yet in a letter to his brother Theo, his description of this picture includes no acknowledgment of intentionally conveying upheaval. On the contrary, he is at pains to talk about its restful mood, a symbol of relaxation and peace. The inescapable conclusion is that it was he, Vincent, who required the peace… and he who never found it.

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