One of the best-known artists in the world, Vincent Willem van Gogh (1853-90) only painted for ten years of his life but during that time he produced more than 2,000 works of art, including paintings and drawings. Although he experienced almost no success, he helped to lay the foundations of modern art.
A troubled man, Van Gogh experienced many rejections, was plagued by mental illness and attempted several careers before deciding to be an artist at the age of twenty-seven. The eldest surviving child of six, he grew up in North Brabant in the southern Netherlands. His father was a Protestant minister.
At the age of sixteen, he was apprenticed to the art dealers Goupil & Cie in The Hague, London and Paris, but after being dismissed, he taught in England for a while and then worked as a missionary in the Borinage mining district of Belgium. In 1881, he took art lessons with Anton Mauve, and studied the work of artists, especially 17th-century Dutch painters and Millet. In 1885, he visited Antwerp where he discovered Rubens and began collecting Japanese ukiyo-e prints.
The following year, he joined his brother Theo in Paris, where he studied with the painter Fernand Cormon (1845- 1924) and met the Impressionists, and through their example, he lightened his palette and shortened his brushstrokes.
In 1888, he moved to Arles in the south of France, hoping to found an artists’ colony. Using Impressionist and Japanese art as influences, his work brightened as he used colour and symbolism to express his feelings. Gauguin was the only artist to join him at Arles, but they argued frequently and Van Gogh’s mental illness worsened. After one blazing row, Van Gogh cut off part of his left earlobe and was temporarily hospitalized, but his work became even more striking and dynamic. In May 1890, he moved to Auvers-sur- Oise, where the sympathetic Dr Paul Gachet treated him, but two months later, he shot himself and died in the arms of his beloved brother Theo.
Van Gogh painted this when Gauguin was staying with him at Arles. Although simple and plain, the chair represents his hope for the future.
This painting is the third version of Van Gogh’s bedroom in Arles that he painted between 1888 and 1889. Each painting is almost identical. Writing to his brother Theo, he explained the appeal:
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. I wanted to express absolute repose with these different colours.
Much has been made of there being two of everything, possibly indicating Van Gogh’s anticipation of Gauguin’s companionship. However, the sparseness of the room and its colour scheme also shows his admiration for Japan and the simplicity with which ‘great artists have lived in that country’.