A Painting a Day: van Gogh's Room in Arles (1889)


A painting for the day to remind us what happens when we lose arts funding, education, and programs that inspire a new generation of artists and thinkers. Are the arts necessary, or just window dressing? You be the judge...
Today we have one of van Gogh's many portraits of his room--the Room in Arles (1889), painted at the very end of his life as he was trying to recover at the hospital in Saint-Remy. Naturally, his entire world, once almost boundless, shrank to encompass a single room (and sometimes, the hospital grounds). Like Monet's paintings of a single cathedral at various times of day, this painting reflects one of van Gogh's many attempts to capture the mood and personality of his room. And quite clearly, he did something more, too--he captured his own mental state and perspective each time he contemplated the objects in his room.
He told his brother that the subject of the painting was "color alone," and that's the first thing you see here--the vibrant colors, intense and jarring, like a fruit which is so tart that it's almost overwhelming. The sickly looking green of the window (which reminds me of the color of absinthe advertisements from the 19th century) seems out of sync with the rich, sky-blue of the walls--yet of course they complement one another at the same time. These greens, also seen in the cloth hanging from the wall, and in the paintings, seem to reflect his sickness, or uneasiness at this sedentary existence. The blue seems to be the hospital's attempt to ease his mind and assure him that everything will be all right, that convalescence is right around the corner. And yet, the room is full of motion and unease: the chairs seem to be moving, or even floating, above the floor (the perspective is slightly off, the one near the bed appearing to be tipping over). The bed, however, is the most alarming object: it towers over the viewer like a castle, less a bed than an edifice--even a battering ram. Even the paintings on the wall seem to be swaying in the breeze, including van Gogh's own self-portrait (the one with the red hair), a subtle reminder that the occupant was taking the cure, but it wasn't "taking" to him.
In Peter Gartner's book on the Musee d'Orsay (where this painting hangs), he notes that "The painter has no fixed viewpoint in relation to the room; it varies from object to object as the viewer surveys the picture. A subjective experience of space is a feature of van Gogh's composition, and, together with a use of color aiming to achieve heightened symbolism, is typical of his style, which van Gogh wanted to be seen as "grand style" (281). I love the idea that a single room, however modest, can be grand--an entire world, an entire universe of feeling and personality. Every object here seems buzzing with life, from the brush to the floor itself. It reminds us, as William Wordsworth once wrote, that the "To me the meanest flower that blows can give/Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears."

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