Vincent van Gogh’s now iconic painting of his bedroom in Arles is one of his most famous and favored works.
He described his intention for the painting in his letters to his brother Theo, saying: “This time it’s simply my bedroom, but the colour has to do the job here, and through its being simplified by giving a grander style to things, to be suggestive here of rest or of sleep in general. In short, looking at the painting should rest the mind, or rather, the imagination.”
The painting is one of the most immediately recognizable in the canon of Western art, but few know that it now looks quite different than when Van Gogh painted it. In the same letter quoted above, which was accompanied by a sketch of the painting (image above, bottom), he described the colors of the major objects:
“The walls are of a pale violet. The floor — is of red tiles.
The bedstead and the chairs are fresh butter yellow.
The sheet and the pillows very bright lemon green.
The bedspread scarlet red.
The window green.
The dressing table orange, the basin blue.
The doors lilac.”
And in a subsequent passage: “The shadows and cast shadows are removed; it’s coloured in flat, plain tints like Japanese prints.”
Many of these colors, the floor and the doors in particular, don’t match his description, most likely because of his use of a fugitive red pigment (Rose Madder Lake?). Colors like Rose Madder Lake and Alizarin Crimson, made from organic components rather than metals or earths, lose their color in prolonged exposure to light. This has led to the development of modern light-fast substitutes like quinacridone pigments, which artists in Van Gogh’s time did not have.
In addition to the chemical changes that have altered the color over time, the painting was damaged in Van Gogh’s lifetime, both by a flood of the Rhône in 1889 and by being rolled for sending to his brother, who Van Gogh asked to reline the back of it with additional canvas. Theo returned it to Vincent unaltered, suggesting that he copy it first, which he did. There are two additional copies of the painting, one of which is in The Art Institute of Chicago and the other in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
The original is in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, which has found it necessary to address restoration of the damaged painting, and has decided to chronicle that process, giving us a rare glimpse not only of how restoration of artworks is carried out, but of some of the difficult decisions faced by conservators.
For example, should areas of the floor that were retouched by past conservators to match the original color (which can be seen under the edges of the frame where it has not been exposed to light) be removed and replaced with a color that matches the current faded state of Van Gogh’s original paint?
The museum has a mini-site devoted to the restoration of The Bedroom, featuring a high-resolution image of the painting, a blog that details the process as it happens, supplemented with images and video, and links to Van Gogh’s letters about the painting (part of the Museum’s wonderful project of posting Van Gogh’s letters online, which I wrote about here).
There is also an informative section of the museum’s site devoted to Van Gogh’s studio practice.
A good place to start are the sections on The Painting, and The Examination. The latter features a video in which Ella Hendriks, the Head of Conservation for the van Gogh Museum, describes the state of the painting, the comparison of the colors and the start of the process of examining the work; and the decisions that must be made in taking on the restoration.
You can then follow the blog posts detailing the process as it happens.