Rachel Cohen

Van Gogh's Room In Detail

Van Gogh039s Room In Detail

Vincent Van Gogh, The Bedroom, 1889. Art Institute of Chicago. Photos Rachel Cohen.

It is nearly midnight. Dark out. Someone is setting off fireworks. In the house very quiet. I think of Van Gogh, to whom it was important to have these few rooms, with enough room for him to paint, and for Gauguin to come and be sheltered, these rooms in the yellow house in Arles.

He had been working so hard in the Midi, struggling to anchor his paintings so they didn't blow away in the mistral. He wanted to reach an understanding of the landscape that the greatest work, especially work from Japan seemed to him to have. "All my work is in a way founded on Japanese art." [Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent van Gogh, ed. Irving Stone with Jean Stone.]

And he was searching for an expression of color. He recalled the work and convictions of Pissarro and Cézanne. "What Pissarro says is true: You must boldly exaggerate the effects either of harmony or discord which colours produce; exact drawing, exact colour, is not the essential thing because the reflection of reality in a mirror, if it could be caught, colour and all, would not be a picture at all, no better than a photograph."

When he painted a first version of this bedroom, a work which is now at the Musée d'Orsay, he wrote to his brother."It's just simply my bedroom, but colour is to do everything, and giving by its simplification a grander style to things is to be suggestive here of rest or of sleep. In a word, to look at the picture ought to rest the brain, or rather the imagination."

Some things were quite different, by the time he painted the painting pictured here, which he did a year later.

But the colors are like what he wrote about. "The walls are pale violet. The ground is of red tiles. the wood of the bed and chairs is the yellow of fresh butter, the sheets and pillows greenish-lemon, the coverlet scarlet, the window green, the toilet table orange, the basin blue, the doors lilac. The broad lines of the furniture again must express inviolable rest."

At night it is so easy to feel low, even despairing. Go to bed, we tell each other. I remind myself, even the most discordant and exaggerated colors may be a structure for rest.

Van Gogh's Room

Van Gogh039s Room

Vincent Van Gogh, The Bedroom, 1889. Art Institute of Chicago. Detail photo Rachel Cohen.

Today there is a small glitch in the program that allows me to upload images as part of these notebook entries, and this changes how I can take you through Van Gogh's room — the square table with the blue pitcher in its bowl and the stoppered glass bottles, the open green casement window, the floor with its rough texture of green and brown, the two bright yellow straw chairs, the red cover on the bed, the row of pegs on the wall on which hang the blue work clothes and the soft-brimmed hat — all this will be in words. Perhaps that is good in its way, a space to enter more like a novel, not so much considering his space as making one of your own.

What I want to make note of are the paintings on the walls. I've chosen the one picture that I can show accordingly. If you look back at it, you can see that on the side wall there are four paintings, one clearly a portrait. And that, above the head of the bed, there is a painting of a green tree in a bit of landscape. I am interested in the way Van Gogh painted trees, and this painting of a painting of a tree gives me some clues.

First, as perhaps you know. This bedroom was of great significance to Van Gogh. It was in the first, and only, house that Van Gogh called his own, the famous "yellow house" at Arles. When he moved in, in 1888, he was exhilarated, and felt that sense of groundedness and possibility that many of us have felt in a first real room, apartment, or house of our own.

He immediately painted a set of paintings to go on the walls. That is a lovely thought to me. Here is my new house, I will paint paintings to decorate the walls, and it happens that they will all be Van Goghs. Anyway, he exhausted himself. And fell into bed for two days. And then when he got up, painted his bedroom. And was delighted with the bedroom painting. There was a flood that damaged this first painting, and he painted the same painting again twice more – a year later, at very nearly the same scale, and then shortly after that again, a small version, as a present for his mother and sister.

I have spent some time with The Bedroom at the Art Institute. But the museum also did an exhibition I did not see, months before we arrived in Chicago, bringing together the three versions of the same subject. And so there is a whole set of online materials if you are curious to make close comparisons. The Art Institute's materials, and a short article by Katie Rahn, point out that there are significant changes in the portraits on the right-hand wall.

The first, happy version of the bedroom was painted a few days before the arrival of one of Van Gogh’s most important friends and, some later came to feel, his most important enemy, Paul Gauguin. In the happiest bedroom, the portraits painted on the wall are actual portraits by Van Gogh, still in existence, of actual people Van Gogh knew, and anticipate camaraderie and artistic growth. One is of a painter-friend, the other of a soldier-friend.

By a year later, a devastating year, in which Van Gogh lost significant ground in his hopes for what his life could be, the paintings on the wall have become a self-portrait of the artist paired with one of an imaginary woman. The self-portraits resemble actual Van Gogh paintings, the imaginary women paintings don’t exist, to our knowledge. So, he has gone from painting his own real paintings, to painting paintings of his that he will not paint.

One change that goes unremarked in the museum materials is the change to the tree. In the Art Institute’s painting, the tree is green, stands on the ground, there is a blue in the background, the trunk is brown and curves and branches in a way typical of a Van Gogh tree.

While I have been working on this entry, the good people at Slabmedia have fixed the glitch. So here is a screenshot of a magnified detail of the Art Institute’s Van Gogh bedroom:

Fortunately, the Musée d’Orsay also provides the possibility of extreme magnification of their collection. Look at the tree in the next painting of his bedroom, the one he sent to his mother and sister as things began to fall apart:

It is a difficult tree. Has it been truncated? Is it growing in some wavery way? Is it phallic? Is it blowing away? Is it dawn or sunset, spring or winter. It is not what it was.

Van Gogh painted the layers of his life right on to the walls of his room. That is what each of us is doing in our confinement – you just can’t see the paint.

Lorenzetti and Neighborhood

Frederick Project: Elegy

Lorenzetti Fogg

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, The Crucifixion, ca. 1345, Harvard Art Museums, photos Rachel Cohen

This week, the week of Passover and Easter, is a strange one. I think of it as a place in the year where time folds over itself.

In our family, we observe Passover, the commemoration of the exodus. The story of enslavement and liberation told over and over down the generations. That story, the ritual of its retelling at a meal, is then the setting for the last supper, the prelude to an execution, and the foundation of the new testament, also celebrated in our family, by some devoutly, by others with colored eggs. Every year, a week where two religions show the knot that binds them together.

This morning when I woke up, I wanted to pay my respects to the dead.

It is April 7th, 2020. As of this morning, there were more than 300 dead in Illinois, more than 11,000 in the US, more than 78,000 in the world. Many of those people died yesterday and the day before. It is early for elegy.

In this morning’s news, several articles about racial disparities in the rates of illness and death. The Chicago Tribune reports that 68% of the people who have died in our community are those who have been treated as Black. “Black Chicagoans,” the newspaper says, “are dying at a rate nearly six times greater than white residents.” They lived on the south side, the west side, and were my neighbors, and my history teachers.

Our elected officials are quoted in the papers saying, rightly, that this is the result of generations of systemic racism and inequality. It is a week when history is compounding itself, and I would like to think about Lorenzetti.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti was an artist in Siena in the 14th century. He painted important frescoes in the Palazzo Pubblico called The Allegory of Good and Bad Government, which demonstrate how different every feature of life is, from the tilling of land to the way neighbors get along, under good government and bad government.

Two weeks ago, many of us watched or listened to the people of Siena singing together in the evening from balconies or behind shuttered windows, under lockdown.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, like his brother Pietro Lorenzetti, who was also a painter, died of the Black Death in 1348 or 1349. These images are all from one of Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s late paintings, The Crucifixion, ca. 1345, which is at the Fogg Museum in Cambridge.

I got very interested in Sienese painting while I was writing a book about the art critic Bernard Berenson. Berenson was an early champion of the radical and lyrical late medieval Sienese work that was at first not especially popular among 19th century collectors; they preferred the more geometric departure from the middle ages that was effected in nearby Florence.

While I was thinking about Sienese painting, we were living in Cambridge, and I was astonished when I discovered that one of the great Lorenzettis was four blocks from our house.

I went often to visit this neighbor, an important history teacher, a delicate one.

The neighborhood is bannered and caparisoned in grief and bloodshed. We look in all different directions. The story folded over itself, is told again.

Jan Brueghel the Elder Dance

Frederick Project: Crowded

Jan Brueghel the Elder Dance

Jan Brueghel the elder, Wedding Dance, 1600, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux. Photos by Rachel Cohen.

Yesterday I spent some five hours talking to people through screens – a zoom faculty meeting with twenty-five writers at their desks, facetime with my oldest friend, also a writer at a desk, zoom family meet-up for nine with breakout room for cousins. The day closed with a zoom nightcap for my husband and I and a dear friend in Cambridge. Grateful for friends, colleagues, family, health, nevertheless, by the end I was reeling with insubstantiality.

This morning I followed my subconscious through the folders of my art photographs, choosing a trip to France six years ago, the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux, then falling to contemplating this painting, Wedding Dance from 1600 by Jan Brueghel the elder.

(In the confusing genealogy of Brueghels, this is not by the patriarch of the family, the profound Pieter Brueghel the elder, but by his second son. Jan Breughel grew up to paint brilliant still lifes and genre scenes like this one. After this Jan Breughel, two more generations of painter-Brueghels were born, including another Jan, so that the one who painted Wedding Dance gets called the elder.)

This morning, I love how crowded it is. Even the crowd of difficult-to-keep-straight Brueghel descendants is delightful.

When I took the photos, I was in the Bordeaux Museum with our daughter, who was turning two that week. She was very little and liked best some small bronze statues of animals. We had been in the town’s center, at the merry-go-round, which she loved, even in the rain, and I had promised we would go to the merry-go-round again. She was patient, and stood on her little feet, but I knew I was taking pictures fast in order to think later.

I didn’t know, though, that I was taking pictures in order to feel later. Even through my screen, I can get the jolt of collision, face pressed to face, the woman leaning in to advise the none-too-joyful bride.

Stretch of legs and arms to jut and whirl.

Oh wonderful contact.