The artist’s famous paintings of a simple bedroom suggest a universal longing for something more.
I moved 10 times in 10 years when I was in my 20s and 30s. I came to Chicago for a job and my very first apartment was a lovely two-flat with a lovely roommate. But after six months, she moved back home to Ohio to help her ailing mother. I couldn’t afford the rent by myself, so I moved in with a friend from work.
After a year or so, that friend got married, and I decided to move in with another friend, and, well, this went on for a decade and included a nine-month stint in Colorado and a move back to Chicago.
On the surface, my reasons for moving were all reasonable. But deep down I knew I was searching for my place on this earth and a place to call home.
An artist’s bedroom
Recently, an exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago reminded me of my own search all those years ago. Vincent Van Gogh—the Dutch painter who famously cut off his own ear—is my kindred spirit when it comes to moving. Only he has me beat: he moved 37 times in as many years.
Van Gogh’s many famous paintings have been emblazoned on coffee mugs and framed prints that college students hang on their dorm walls: The Starry Night, Sunflowers, and Irises.
The exhibit at the Art Institute explored a lesser-known series of paintings he created of the bedroom of a yellow house he rented in Arles, France in 1888 and 1889. When Van Gogh finished the first painting of his bedroom, he loved it so much that he wrote to his brother, Theo—an art dealer—that he thought the painting was one of his best.
But a flood in his house damaged Bedroom, so Van Gogh decided to make a copy of it, and later he painted another copy as a gift to his mother and sister.
The Bedroom paintings are all slightly different. The cozy bedroom includes a simple chair, a bed, paintings on the wall, a water pitcher, a window. It’s not difficult to understand how Van Gogh could find solace there. In a letter to his brother, he wrote of the yellow house that he had finally found a place “where I can live and think and breathe.”
But the room evokes much more than an artist’s retreat. It depicts, at least for me, a symbol of what we are all longing for.
From missionary to artist
Van Gogh was the oldest son of a Dutch Reformed minister. He studied theology and was on a path to follow his father into the ministry. But when he flunked his entrance exam to seminary, he instead took a three-month missionary course and ended up as a missionary in the coal-mining region in Belgium.
Self Portrait without a beard, Vincent Van Gogh, 1889, Private Collection. Vincent van Gogh | Getty Images
Van Gogh’s family was wealthy, but he identified more with the workers in the fields and the coal miners. His congregation in Belgium was poor—and Van Gogh gave up his comfortable lodgings to a homeless man and lived in a hut, sleeping on straw. The church authorities fired him for “undermining the dignity of the priesthood.”
Disillusioned with the church (not surprisingly), he started focusing more and more on his art. To his brother, he wrote, “I often feel homesick for the country of paintings.” Van Gogh seemed to translate his spiritual zeal into glimpses of the divine in his art. He could identify with Victor Hugo, who said, “Religions pass, but God remains.”
|For what can one learn that is better than what God has given by nature to every human soul.”|
Instead of painting obvious religious scenes, Van Gogh portrayed the Divine in his paintings of stars, potato diggers, prostitutes, children, nature, the sun. He wrote in one of his letters to Theo: “It is good to continue believing that everything is more miraculous than one can comprehend, for this is truth; it is good to remain sensitive and humble and tender of heart … For what can one learn that is better than what God has given by nature to every human soul.”
Van Gogh sought to “find a way, through art, of teaching spiritual truths to people so as to console them,” according to Naomi Margolis Maurer, author of The Pursuit of Spiritual Wisdom: The Thought and Art of Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gaugin, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “He believed in a religion that teaches people to have reverence and awe of creation, and to have compassion and feelings of charity and sympathy toward people suffering.”
Longing for a true home
Van Gogh’s restless search for home took him to 24 cities. Most of the time, he was a guest, dependent on the hospitality of friends, or family. When he finally, in 1888, ended up in Arles, France in the yellow house, he felt like he had finally found his own home. Many of his most famous paintings were created during the time he lived there.
But his contentment didn’t last long. Van Gogh had fought mental illness most of his adult life—many experts believe he suffered from epilepsy and possibly manic depression. His neighbors in Arles became disturbed by his behavior, including, of course, the incident where he cut off his ear.
Van Gogh was eventually admitted to an asylum in nearby Saint-Remy, where he continued to produce paintings, such as Starry Night and At Eternity’s Gate. After leaving the asylum, he moved to an artist’s commune north of Paris. But his mental health continued to deteriorate. The following year it’s said that he shot himself in the chest and died a few days later. Tragically, he was only 37 years old.
|If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”|
“Luckily, my own nomadic quest for a home ended more happily than Van Gogh’s. After a decade of frantically searching for a place to land, I finally ended up in a sunny top-floor apartment of a two-flat and stayed there for five years. After that, I was fortunate enough to buy my own condo, where I’ve lived for 11 years, got married and adopted a child. Now my husband, daughter and I are thinking of moving to a bigger house, “where I can live and think and breathe.” But as my husband reminds me—will a new house really satisfy a longing that only God can fulfill?
Perhaps C.S. Lewis described the feeling best: “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy,” he wrote, “the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”
As I walked out of the Art Institute on that bright, sunny day, I realized that Van Gogh was searching for that “other world,” and that the closest approximation to it that he found during his short time on earth was the plain bedroom in sunny Arles where he lived for a brief time—an orderly spot of calm in an otherwise turbulent, questing life.”
Learn more about Van Gogh
These fascinating reads will give you a better understanding of the painters life and works.
You can read about the recent Van Gogh exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago here. The three Bedroom paintings will soon be returned to their permanent collections at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the Art Institute of Chicago’s permanent collection, and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
Van Gogh’s Bedrooms by Gloria Groom, Louis van Tilborogh, David J. Getsy, and Inge Fiedler.
Van Gogh and God by Cliff Edwards and Henri J. M. Nouwen
At Eternity’s Gate: The Spiritual Vision of Vincent Van Gogh by Kathleen Powers Erickson
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