I had the humbling experience of wandering through the special Van Gogh exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago, and the first thing I wanted to do was write about it.

Van Gogh’s Bedrooms // Through May 10th // General Admission + $5 or $15 on Free Thursday Nights for Illinois Residents

Tiny background:

The Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh was born in the 1800’s and died in the 1800’s. He moved around and switched jobs in the Netherlands, then moved around and switched jobs in France, then in England, and then back to France. You probably know him as the crazy dude who cut off his ear, and you’re somewhat right. The ear thing is, unfortunately, true.

Van Gogh suffered with severe personality disorders including being bi-polar and having depression and anxiety, as well as other potential problems we don’t know about. This affected his ability to hold a job and form lasting relationships and friendships, which ultimately kept him from settling anywhere or feeling at home. In his 37 years on this planet, he lived in 37 places.

This brings us to the bedrooms.

The famous paintings featured above may look familiar. They’re called The Artist’s Bedroom, and are a series of three paintings he did of (no prizes for guessing) his bedroom in Arles, France. The three studies look essentially the same, except for small differences. They were all done at different points in his life. The Art Institute’s exhibit features close-ups of the same area on each painting to let you see the minute changes, because they are important. One usually resides in Amsterdam, one in France, and one permanently in Chicago.

Van Gogh has also created notable works painting the outside of the Arles house where he was a tenant. It’s called The Yellow House, and is featured below. The idea of a home was very seductive to him; he wanted one desperately. But despite his attempts to physically recreate a home-y space on canvas, his illnesses prevented him from achieving one in reality.

the yellow house 1888
The Yellow House in Arles, France. 1888

I was disappointed the Art Institute didn’t include this. They referenced his hospital and asylum stays underneath paintings created at those times, without actually mentioning any of his illnesses. I didn’t like their choice to omit this information; that made these issues seem like they needed to be kept a secret. Perhaps they assumed we all know he had his problems and wanted to leave it at that.

Entrance to the Public Garden in Arles
Entrance to the Public Garden at Arles, 1888.

Still, his ability to visibly communicate abstract emotion is legendary. His unique style probably makes his paintings easiest to recognize of all impressionism artists: heavy paint blobs, bright colors, defined strokes, and fragmented compositions filled with jots and dashes comprise his style. Saying he defied artistic tradition is an understatement. The painting above is The Entrance to the Public Garden at Arles. Notice how heavy the sky looks—it looks heavier and denser than the ground! Van Gogh rejected the general consensus that skies should be airy and light, preferring instead to personify his anxiety in the form of an overbearing sky. It’s a brilliant piece that makes the viewer see what the artist feels; even in a peaceful garden, anxiety persists.

I sincerely hope you’ll visit this exhibit.  It sounds crazy that the Institute has dedicated an entire wing to an exhibit advertising three paintings of the exact same thing. But the depth and integrity they use in the analysis is meaningful and fascinating. Well worth the trip (I’m planning my second one in two weeks)!

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