BY Helen Murphy
The “Van Gogh’s Bedrooms” exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago was more than a celebration of a great artist’s achievements in painting and interior design. It was also a tender look at the universal, well-known struggle to define the concept of home.
Though Van Gogh only lived to see his late thirties, he lived in 37 different residences spanning 24 cities. The exhibition guides the visitor through many of Van Gogh’s adult residences, from Nuenen to Paris to the famous Arles yellow house. The strongest components of the exhibition were the artifacts displayed along with Van Gogh’s paintings: from real bird’s nests sent in from the Field Museum to hand-written letters from Van Gogh to a life-sized reproduction of his Arles house. The sheer number of tangible memories available in the exhibition and being able to physically enter a replica of Van Gogh’s beloved yellow house gave the unique opportunity to gain an intimate glimpse into his private life.
Of course, the cornerstone of the exhibit was the trio of almost-identical paintings of Van Gogh’s bedroom in his yellow house at Arles. Though no human figure appears in any of them, the paintings may be read as vulnerable self-portraits; all of the items depicted in the room are Van Gogh’s personal items and the room was his safe haven and place of belonging. The first painting of the bedroom was made soon after Van Gogh moved into his small house in Arles, France. The second two bedroom paintings were painted by Van Gogh as copies of the first while he was in an asylum at Saint-Rémy. Van Gogh’s decision to paint this rather unconventional subject of a bedroom in the first place, let alone to repeat it two more times, speaks volumes about his feelings towards the room itself. To Van Gogh, the bedroom at Arles was more than a physical space for him to sleep at night. It was a place for creative contemplation, a refuge, a place for solitude, dreaming, and, of course, painting.
As college students, like Van Gogh, we all have multiple places in our lives that we have called home. We all had that feeling freshman year when we caught ourselves at the library or frat quad late one night saying, “I’m tired, let’s go home now,” and realized we were referring to our dorm room instead of the place we grew up in. When you have two places to call home, no matter which one you’re living in, there will always exist a part of you that longs for the other. Perhaps Van Gogh felt this, too, as he struggled his whole life to find a place to truly call home, especially while he was drifting in and out of asylums towards the end of his career. “Van Gogh’s Bedrooms” is a beautiful tribute to the anxieties and insecurities that go along with living in multiple places and the ever-present search for that one place to call home, that one place to belong.
The old adage says that “Home is where the heart is,” but I think it’s possible for the heart to exist in multiple homes at once, and I think Van Gogh would agree with me.