CULTURE & ARTS

As Vincent Van Gogh Grew Darker, His Works Did Too, Study Says

What the original colors in van Gogh's "Bedroom" paintings reveal about his state of mind.
The first version of Vincent van Gogh's "Bedroom in Arles," created in October of 1888. (Oil on canvas, 72 x 90 cm, Van Gogh
The first version of Vincent van Gogh's "Bedroom in Arles," created in October of 1888. (Oil on canvas, 72 x 90 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, courtesy of Wikimedia.)

You probably know that Vincent van Gogh created a painting in the late 19th century called "Bedroom in Arles." It depicts the Dutch artist's electric blue quarters in what's known as his Yellow House, located, yes, in Arles, France. 

You may also know that van Gogh actually created three versions of the now iconic bedroom image -- the first in October 1888, the second and third in September 1889. Van Gogh, taken with the original, decided to make the two subsequent renditions after learning that water damage threatened the integrity of the original. The three are currently on view together for the first time in North America at the Art Institute of Chicago. 

What you probably don't know, yet, is that the colors we're accustomed to seeing -- the ones we perceive in his three paintings today -- tell only part of the story. The rest is hidden in the ways the colors have changed over time. Conveniently, a group of experts revealed the original colors for the first time, just last month. 

Conservators working at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) employed a technology called X-ray fluorescence spectrometry to determine how van Gogh's pigments have transformed over the past 128 years. Their findings show, not so surprisingly, that the paintings changed color over time due to natural chemical processes in the pigments, and as a result, they are virtually fading from the outside in. 

The second version, created in September of 1889. (Oil on canvas, 72 x 90 cm, Art Institute of Chicago, courtesy of Wikimedia
The second version, created in September of 1889. (Oil on canvas, 72 x 90 cm, Art Institute of Chicago, courtesy of Wikimedia.)

"At first glance they all look the same," Francesca Casadio, an art conservation scientist at the Institute, explained to The Guardian. "But when you go deeper you can start to see that they tell us far more about the artist’s life and his quest for a home."

If you look at the first painting now, you'll notice dark purple walls, brown furniture, a pallid glow over the room. This vision is in stark contrast to van Gogh's own description of the work to his brother Theo, where he described the walls as "pale violet," the bed and chairs "yellow like fresh butter" and the pillows "lemon light green." 

Although the first "Bedroom" now looks dimmer than the rest, back in the day, the image was piercingly bright, inspired in part by the colored flatness of Japanese prints. Van Gogh painted the first image while preparing a guest room in the Yellow House for a good friend -- painter Paul Gauguin. You can see the door in the image that leads to Gauguin's room. Van Gogh was, from most accounts of the time period, in relatively good spirits.

However, the artists' stint as roommates didn't go so well. The two barely left the house, spending a little over two months cooped up in a cloud of booze, paint and tobacco smoke. Both artists had tempestuous personalities and plenty of issues, and tensions grew higher as van Gogh's mental health declined. As Gauguin put it: "Between two such beings as he and I, the one a perfect volcano, the other boiling inwardly, some sort of struggle was preparing."

The third version, created a few weeks after the second in 1889. (Oil on canvas, 57.5 x 74 cm, Musée d'Orsay, Par
The third version, created a few weeks after the second in 1889. (Oil on canvas, 57.5 x 74 cm, Musée d'Orsay, Paris, courtesy of Wikimedia.)

By the time van Gogh created the second version of his "Bedroom," he and Gauguin were in a "pact of silence" and no longer friends. Van Gogh, sans an ear, made the piece while at an asylum in Saint-Rémy. Although you can't quite tell from the contemporary versions, the second painting was once much darker than the original, the walls a deep purple and floors a dusky brown. The third "Bedroom" is a close copy of the image on a smaller canvas, one of van Gogh's réductions of his favorite compositions.

At the time of the second and third "Bedrooms," van Gogh was in a far more dire state of mental unrest, and the original paintings reflect this shift. The unfaded first "Bedroom" is a luminous depiction of a fertile home base, rife with inspiration and possibility. The second two images, however, reflect van Gogh's diminishing health, their darkness hinting at the growing tumult in his life and mind. Less than a year after the final "Bedroom" was created, van Gogh shot himself, ending his life. 

The AAAS' research -- X-ray data allowed scientists to create color maps harnessing the original images as precisely as possible, though they'll never be exact -- doesn't just illuminate an alternate color palette for one of van Gogh's most beloved works, it reveals a simple relationship between life and art that previously remained undocumented.

As van Gogh's life grew more troublesome and painful, his palette imitated the impending darkness. The "Bedrooms" aren't just a glimpse into the legendary artist's bedroom, but his declining psyche. 

Van Gogh's three "Bedrooms in Arles" are on view at the Art Institute of Chicago until May 10, 2016.

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