Analyzing Vincent van Gogh Part II
The Secrets of the Bedroom with Art Conservationist Ella Hendriks
By Robin Jay
Van Gogh painted a total of three versions of The Bedroom, but interestingly they were all slightly different. Experts at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, which houses the first painting of The Bedroom, say the original had been damaged. The artist’s brother, Theo, advised Vincent to make a copy of the painting
before having it restored. Encouraged by his brother, Vincent made a second painting (that hangs at the Art Institute of Chicago), as well as a smaller third painting for his mother and sister.
In 2010, The Bedroom in Amsterdam underwent a detailed and painstaking restoration by Art Conservationist Ella Hendriks. South Florida Opulence interviewed Hendriks about the daunting but exciting project.
South Florida Opulence: Why do you think Van Gogh chose to paint his bedroom, and why did he make several variations of the same piece?
Ella Hendriks: Van Gogh painted his bedroom in October 1888, when the artist was living in the Yellow House in Arles. He put a great deal of thought into the composition and the colours, and we know from his letters that he was very pleased with the result. ‘But the colour has to do the job here,’ he wrote, ‘and through its being simplified by giving a grander style to things, to be suggestive here of rest or of sleep in general’.
Vincent van Gogh considered The Bedroom an important painting. In early 1889, Van Gogh returned home from the hospital in Arles after his psychological crisis and the injury to his ear. As he wrote to Theo, ‘When I saw my canvases again after my illness, what seemed to me the best was the bedroom.’
From a surviving kadastral plan of the house, we know that the strange perspective of the walls was not imagined but that the walls were in fact sloping and met at an angle. The strange perspective of the bed may be explained by the fact that the bedroom interior was cramped, especially since he painted it behind the easel with his back up against a chimney-piece that jutted into the room from the near wall (i.e., the wall behind him, thus not painted). Being so close to his subject matter, he had difficulties handling the foreshortening of the bed, especially given that he did not have a natural feeling for the laws of perspective.
SFO: What did you have to do to determine the condition of The Bedroom and what would need to be done to restore it?
Ella Hendriks: Working together with scientists and imaging experts, a whole range of diagnostic techniques was applied to gain insight into the painting’s condition and the possible options for treatment. The techniques used ranged from examination at different spectral wavelengths (including X-ray, ultraviolet and infrared light) to the analysis of microscopic paint samples to establish the buildup and composition of paint layers. Also tiny “cleaning tests” were made under the microscope to establish safe methods to remove the old discoloured varnish.
SFO: What was it like to work on such a world-famous restoration? Did the experience give you insight as to what Van Gogh may have been thinking as he created it?
Ella Hendriks: It was an amazing experience to work across the surface of such a beautiful painting over a period of months. As I removed the old layers of discoloured varnish and overpaint, the boldness of Van Gogh’s colours and brushwork became even more apparent, allowing me to appreciate the “masculine” style and flat decorative colour scheme in the “manner of a Japanese print” that Van Gogh described.
In the course of examination and treatment, evidence came to light how some colours had changed compared to the original colour scheme described in his letters. Most notably the light violet walls and doors are now blue, due to disappearance (fading) of a red lake pigment from the violet mixture of red, blue and white. As a result, the painting now has a more spacious feel than was originally intended, contrary to what we know was the very cramped space of the bedroom interior. Also, the original violet and yellow contrasts would have given a more balanced scheme of complementary colours that compete less with each other, better reflecting the fact that the painting was meant to be suggestive of rest or sleep in general. These discoveries brought me closer to understanding Van Gogh’s intention in the painting.
Another unexpected find was the newsprint letters transferred onto the flattened surface of the paint in some places. This must be the same newspaper that Van Gogh described having stuck onto the flaking paint surface when the picture became damaged by damp in his studio. Some letters could be deciphered under the microscope, but unfortunately no words could be read!
In the course of restoration, it appeared that paint loss due to the water damage that had occurred in Van Gogh’s studio was more widespread than previously thought. Once the old restorations had been removed, the full extent of damage became apparent. At this stage it was remarkable to experience how, despite its damaged condition, the strength of the painting still carried through. Perhaps this is a definition of a masterpiece.
A special aspect of the conservation treatment was writing a web-log to keep the public informed of progress, explaining some of the challenges encountered in the course of treatment and the choices made. It was wonderful to experience how much interest there was from the general public and to be able to respond to their questions. At the same time it was quite therapeutic to be able to share some of the dilemmas faced with a broader audience!
In the case of The Bedroom, the treatment took six months (there was also a very strict deadline to be met, since the painting was to travel to Japan), but the preliminary examinations, analysis and cleaning tests to decide the appropriate treatment took more than a year. Looking through the microscope can help to assess the condition of the paint layer (is there surface discolouration, is the painting cracked or crumbled or well adhered etc., are there other chemical process still ongoing, such as conversions of pigment to soaps that may appear as microscopic protrusions over the paint surface). I can also help to distinguish later additions from past restorers, such as old retouches of damaged areas that may or may not have discoloured. There are a multitude of things that may be revealed and one can never anticipate in advance exactly what one will come across. That is what makes it so exciting!
The Letters of Vincent van Gogh
with Museum Curator Nienke Bakker in Amsterdam
Impressionist Vincent van Gogh wrote more than 800 letters during his lifetime (mostly to his brother Theo), which, like a diary, tell the bittersweet tale of his tragic, yet legendary, life. Van Gogh was a complex personality with wide-ranging ideas, and anyone seeking to become acquainted with him can do no better than to delve into his letters. They offer a series of first-hand accounts of his life, his various occupations and travels through the Netherlands, Belgium, England and France; his obsessive religious zeal over several years; the realization of his artistic calling; and the periods of mental instability and depression that plagued him during the years preceding his suicide.
The letters from his younger years paint a picture of his intellectual self-education, and the way he used art and literature both to discover and to define himself. Once he had decided to become an artist, everything revolved around achieving his artistic goals. He admired the most diverse artists, novelists, poets and art critics, and wrote passionately about them. The letters also help us to arrange Van Gogh’s oeuvre in chronological order and to understand the artistic ambitions that lay behind it. The many sketches of his own works create a special relationship between his art and his letters.
For Van Gogh, writing was not only a means of communication but, more importantly, a way of focusing and clarifying his thoughts, a means of carving out a place for himself and defining his intellectual identity. They are an interior monologue. Indeed, he proved so talented at writing that his letters have been viewed as exceptional and are regarded by many as great literature.
Vincent van Gogh lived a short life, marked by periods filled with anxiety and, especially in the last 18 months, episodes of mental instability. After following an unfulfilled ambition to become a pastor, he pursued a vocation of an altogether different kind – that of an artist, for which he was only to become famous after his death. He did not write his letters with an eye to publication. The rise in popularity of Van Gogh’s paintings shortly after his death coincided with growing levels of interest in his letters. Indeed, the letters had a significant effect on public awareness of his work.
[English Translation of Van Gogh’s letter to his friend and fellow painter Paul Gauguin on October 17, 1888]
My dear Gauguin,
Thanks for your letter, and thanks most of all for your promise to come as early as the twentieth. Agreed, this reason that you give won’t help to make a pleasure trip of the train journey, and it’s only right that you should put off your journey until you can do it without it being a bloody nuisance. But that apart, I almost envy you this trip, which will show you, en passant, miles and miles of countryside of different kinds with autumn splendours. I still have in my memory the feelings that the journey from Paris to Arles gave me this past winter. How I watched out to see ‘if it was like Japan yet’! Childish, isn’t it?
Look here, I wrote to you the other day that my vision was strangely tired.Well, I rested for two and a half days, and then I got back to work. But not yet daring to go outside, I did, for my decoration once again, a no. 30 canvas of my bedroom with the whitewood furniture that you know.
Ah, well, it amused me enormously doing this bare interior. With a simplicity à la Seurat. In flat tints, but coarsely brushed in full impasto, the walls pale lilac, the floor in a broken and faded red, the chairs and the bed chrome yellow, the pillows and the sheet very pale lemon green, the bedspread blood-red, the dressing-table orange, the washbasin blue, the window green. I had wished to express utter repose with all these very different tones, you see, among which the only white is the little note given by the mirror with a black frame (to cram in the fourth pair of complementaries as well).
Anyway, you’ll see it with the others, and we’ll talk about it. Because I often don’t know what I’m doing, working almost like a sleepwalker. It’s beginning to get cold, especially on the days when the mistral blows. I’ve had gas put in the studio, so that we’ll have good light in winter. Perhaps you’ll be disillusioned with Arles if you come at a time when the mistral’s blowing, but wait… It’s in the long term that the poetry down here soaks in.
You won’t find the house as comfortable yet as we’ll gradually try to make it. There are so many expenses, and it can’t be done in one go. Anyway,
I believe that once here, like me, you’ll be seized with a fury to paint the autumn effects, in between spells of the mistral. And that you’ll understand that I’ve insisted that you come now that there are some very beautiful days. Au revoir, then.