Quest for a nest

Vincent van Gogh’s ‘Bedroom in Arles’, first version, painted in October 1888. Photo: Wiki Commons  

Long before Vincent van Gogh became the poster boy of the oft-repeated descriptor ‘mad genius’, he collected abandoned birds’ nests while wandering the woods. He would display these in the attic bedroom of his childhood home in Groot-Zundert in the south of what was then Holland.

Much later, as an adult and artist, he was stirred by the craftsmanship he saw in nests. He believed that birds could also “truly be counted among the artists.” Not surprisingly, they found a place in the leitmotif of home, haven and refuge that laced his career.

To trace the arc of his short career is to understand the nomadic heart that guided his restless feet in various directions. By the time he died at the age of 37, he had lived in an equal number of residences — sometimes for several months, sometimes for a few weeks — across 24 cities, mainly in the Netherlands and France, interspersed with brief stays in Belgium and England.

In 1880, when he decided to dedicate his life to painting, he was 27. He wrote to his younger brother, Theo, talking as though of personal belonging rather than professional calling: “I often feel homesick for the country of paintings.”

By this time, he had already tried his hand and failed at five professions, including schoolteacher, art dealer and pastor. Soon, he went to live with his parents in Neunen in the Netherlands. It was here that he began to build his own technique, focusing his art mainly on the recurrent theme of home, as he fervently painted the interiors and exteriors of peasant homes, as well as the parsonage of his parents’ house. The birds’ nests series took root here.

The artist engaged children to fetch him nests for 10 cents each; rarer nests, like a wren’s, came for higher stakes. In his small studio, amid all the clutter, at least 30 different nests were perched atop a felled branch in a box filled with soil.

In highlighting the contours and unique shapes of these ordinary abodes, he brought out the extraordinary. “The nests were also painted on a black background on purpose... I simply want it to be obvious... that the objects... are not in their natural setting. A living nest in nature is… something very different; one hardly sees the nest itself, one sees the birds,” he wrote in one of his letters to Theo, in October 1885.

So tenacious was his commitment to nests that he was reminded of them when he came across the mossy thatched roofs of cottages around his parents’ home. Of these symbols of refuge, he wrote to Theo: “I feel for... particularly those human nests, those cottages on the heath and their inhabitants.”

In his own life, home was a lifelong quest, a journey towards finding himself through his art. His frequent changes in address mostly meant being at the mercy of people’s hospitality; he mainly lived as a guest or boarder.

Every time he moved to a new place, he sketched or painted views from his window. In almost every place he painted, van Gogh faced relentless bullying and ridicule for his gawky personality and strangeness.

Finding little success as a peasant painter in the Netherlands, van Gogh moved to Paris, of which he said “Paris is Paris, there is but one Paris... however hard living may be here”. He lived there with Theo in his small Montmartre apartment. Since there was not enough space for an easel, they moved to a bigger place. In 1887, van Gogh painted the Paris skyline, which the brothers thought was the “most remarkable thing about our flat”. It was in this city that he made his acquaintance with the rainbow colours of Impressionism as well as the pointillist brush strokes of Neo-Impressionism.

It was also in Paris that he found a “social home”, finding his tribe in such painters as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Emile Bernard and, more importantly, Paul Gauguin. To distinguish themselves from the established artists whose work was routinely displayed in galleries of the grand Parisian boulevards, he called this coterie, ‘Painters of the Petit Boulevard’.

But even after a year in the city, he continued to feel isolated. In one of his paintings of a terrace and observation deck, he portrayed himself as a tourist, just one among many.

On a cold February night in 1888, he took an overnight train to Arles in the south of France. It seemed that he had finally put his wandering to rest; the place that he called “Japan of the south” came close to becoming his ideal of a permanent home. The move provided a glimmer of hope, even as it flung him into the throes of mental illness.

The second-floor bedroom of his beloved Yellow House in Arles became a sanctuary of sorts, where he produced the famous ‘Bedroom in Arles’. Without knowing it then, van Gogh set a precedent in art history by showing an empty bedroom.

Giving the impression of being in a calm state of mind while painting it, he wrote to Theo: “This time it’s simply my bedroom, but the colour has to do the job here... Looking at the painting should rest the mind, or rather, the imagination.”

van Gogh deemed this painting one of his best but it was soon threatened by water damage. Resolute enough not to lose the composition, he made a second version the following year while he was a patient at the Saint-Paul mental asylum in Saint-Rémy; a few weeks later, he painted a third one for his mother and sister.

After a long period of hospitalisation, he journeyed back to the north of France to Auvers-sur-Oise, where he rented a small room at Ravoux Inn, to recover from what he called the “malady of the south”. Here, he revisited the theme of human nests by painting what had offered him a safe haven since the beginning of his life as an artist: the picturesque peasant cottages. This room was his last “home” — he died there not much later. The room has not been let since.

(This article is based on ‘Van Gogh’s Bedrooms’, a recently concluded exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago, conceived and organised by Gloria Groom, chair of the European painting and sculpture department.)

Sukhada Tatke is a Mumbai-bred, Houston-based freelance writer and journalist. She tweets @ASuitableGirl.

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2022 4:17:40 AM |

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