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Choosing Van Gogh and an untidy bedroom

Give me the kids on holiday or a 3-day long weekend and I invariably ask them (in vain!) to spring clean their bedrooms. After the usual outcry and refusal this week, I came with a cunning plan to make us all see our bedroom in a whole new light.

Van Gogh, The Bedroom, 1889, Art Institute of Chicago Version (on loan to Norton Simon Museum)

We headed to the Pasadena Norton Simon Museum to look at the second version of Van Gogh’s Bedroom, never before exhibited on the West Coast.

But wait a minute, second version?? Yes, Van Gogh painted 3 versions of his famous Bedroom. This puzzled my 10-year-old daughter since she described her bedroom as unique as, and I quote, “a chest of awesomeness, fun and feelings”. So what exactly happened with Van Gogh?

The first version, called Amsterdam version, was painted in 1888.

Van Gogh was experiencing a renewal. Settled in Arles, he was happy, full of hope that Gauguin would come to move in the adjacent bedroom, that together they would paint the town as yellow as the house!

The Yellow House, Van Gogh, 1888 (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam)

The Bedroom is therefore his way to present quite a “mature” life project. Never before did Van Gogh stay in the same place for long as he always struggled in all relationships.

Interestingly, “mature” is also the exact word my son used regarding tidying his bedroom because “giving toys away is one step closer to being an adult” (I still can’t believe all the pearls of wisdom I heard during our little interview – proud Mum moment).

The Bedroom, Van Gogh, 1888, Amsterdam Version at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam

You can feel Van Gogh’s colorful excitement in this realistic vision of his tidy bedroom with his bed neatly made, portraits of his friends hang nice and straight. His brushstrokes are unusually flat and controlled. He carefully contrasted a warm butter yellow bed with cool blue walls, as if he was keeping his rare optimism and latent sadness in check.

To my surprise, such balance of emotions in Van Gogh’s Bedroom echoed my son describing his bedroom, where “extreme feelings of happiness and anger” are expressed. Evidently, it’s hard to have a sister sometimes!

But what happened next?? Well, the Amsterdam version suffered water damage. Van Gogh may have been full of hope but see how the door to Gauguin’s bedroom remains blocked by the chair on the left. Gauguin never came. A devastated Van Gogh was admitted in Saint Rémy hospital where he decided to paint his Bedroom again in 1889 (the 2nd version, owned by the Art Institute in Chicago, on loan to the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena until March 6, 2017).

Van Gogh, The Bedroom, 1889, Art Institute of Chicago Version (on loan to Norton Simon Museum)

Quickly executed from the hospital, cooler colors dominate making for a sad reading, in tune with Van Gogh’s state of mind. Remember the walls of the Amsterdam version used to be a more lively bluish purple prior to water damage so the toned down blue walls of the 2nd version speak of the melancholy deeply felt.


The window is slightly ajar as if hoping for an exit.


The paintings on the wall aren’t as neatly hang and tellingly, the friends’ portraits are gone, replaced by a self-portrait betraying Van Gogh’s solitude. He is just with himself in the tidy bedroom image printed in his brain.

It’s the exact opposite of what kids want and why they don’t care about a tidy bedroom to appeal to their friends. Mine both told me “there are so many other fun things to do” and “tidying is only fun if you do it at friend’s houses”. That’s definitely something I will not forget!!! Craving to be social in everything they do, it’s a stark contrast to Van Gogh facing displacement and isolation.

His brushstrokes are very pronounced, graphic, almost frenetic in the 2nd version. I got some good close ups and the thickly applied paint almost feel like it never got to dry.


The stronger contrast Van Gogh used here speaks of his furious recollection, idealization and over-simplification of the objects of this Bedroom he had to leave behind to hopefully get better. There is a sense of hyper-reality and extreme sensitivity compared to the first version.

In the last version (Orsay, 1889), the furniture has grown larger and is now a sickly yellow.

The Bedroom, Van Gogh, 1889, Musée d’Orsay Version

Contrasting with the blue of the walls tainted lavender, this adds nostalgia if not morbidity to the color palette of prior versions. The furniture has gone a shade darker, lost its texture, giving a feeling of compression. Van Gogh is painting this Bedroom for solace but the window is closed airtight. He had less than a year left to live.

The Orsay version was intended as a gift for Vincent’s mother and sister so it makes you wonder if he was trying to show a falsely controlled intensity to reassure them of his state of mind. Either way, it’s no “chest of awesomeness”…

So my darling children, I have heard what you said. Surprised when you articulated that “cleared up toys clear your mind but also mean you can’t think about doing things differently”, I am going to think you’re not trying to outsmart me. I am going to choose to see your untidy bedrooms as signs of a creative life well lived and filled with the smell of your happiness.

I am sure the time it will be free space for my office will only come too quickly for my heart. Thank you for coming with me on museum adventures for I love our version of We Go to the Gallery! We learn so much more than when we tidy up your bedrooms!

All pictures of the second version of Van Gogh’s Bedroom were taken by the author at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena.

© 2017 Ingrid Westlake

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