Last week I took a trip to Chicago with my family for Spring Break. The sole purpose of the trip was to see all three of Van Gogh’s Bedroom paintings together at the Art Institute. Of course, we did other things, saw Lake Michigan, ate deep dish pizza, took pictures of ourselves in the Bean, but it all fell on seeing those three paintings together.
In his mid 30’s, Van Gogh had already moved over 30 times. In May of 1888 he rented his beloved “yellow house” in Arles and wrote his brother Theo of his delight in finally having a home. In October, he painted his first bedroom painting, a celebration of the space he had created for himself where he could “live and breathe, and think and paint” (Letters to Theo, Sept 9, 1888) Later that month he invited his friend Paul Gauguin to stay with him. By December, the two of them engaged in their epic argument, fueled by Van Gogh’s mental breakdown, the one where he cut off part of his left ear.
The next year he is in and out of a hospital in Arles battling mental illness. When flooding in his yellow house causes water damage to his first bedroom painting he decides to paint another, nearly a year after the original, in September 1889. Two weeks later, he decides to paint this room one more time as a gift to his mother and sister.
I couldn’t wait to stand in front of all three and find my favorite. I wondered if I would have one, would it be obvious or would they all look so similar, I would not be able to choose.
The gallery was packed. You feel the pressure to look quickly, move on as bodies try to move around you. Then I saw them across the darkened room. Number Two, with it’s green tinted floors stood out immediately. It pulsated, it moved, it was ALIVE.
It was heartbreaking. I could sense the desperation, not only in trying to recreate the original painting but to recreate that place of peace and stability he had just one year ago. He longed for a home, to belong and had it for fleeting moment. The pang to paint it for if he could, he would be able to conjure it up again, capture it.
We know the rest of his story. The next year, July 1890, Van Gogh walks into the wheat field he painted just weeks before and shoots himself in the chest. He died 29 hours later.
Moving 17 times before I married in my mid-twenties, I know that longing for home, to belong. Divorce and addiction had dispersed my family both in location and emotional affiliations, making home a daydream for me. Each new room became a canvas of order and simplicity for me to create out of my chaotic life. Moving became a norm I told myself I needed, I wanted. Even now, as I am married for well over a decade, a parent of two and the creator of this home, I think of how exciting it would be to move, once again. I nearly miss that I am here, in this sanctuary, the one I have always longed for. I nearly miss that the beauty, not in a moment far in the past or one I hope to attain, but this moment.