Out of the Picture - Van Gogh's 'Room at Arles' Part One

A few posts ago I introduced you to a new series called 'Out of the Picture' - room designs based on famous paintings. I've been working away the first painting in this series - Van Gogh's 'Room at Arles' - and I'm back to share what I've come up with so far.

First of all, here's a short bio. Van Gogh was born in the Netherlands in 1853. He originally worked for a firm of art-dealers, and did not begin painting until his late twenties - once he got started, he produced more than 2,000 artworks, which considering he only lived to 37 means he created approximately one painting or sketch every week for around ten years. He lived in England, Belgium and Paris, and finally moved to the south of France, where his distinctive colourful style developed, and he created the majority of his most famous paintings, including 'Room at Arles'.

Here's a picture of Arles  - it's way down in the south of France, between Avignon and Marseilles. Andre and I have visited that part of France ourselves - the landscape is gorgeous, and the sunlight is vibrant and beautiful - you can see why Van Gogh might have felt inspired to paint through being there:

During his time in Arles, Van Gogh also painted 'Cafe Terrace at Night' - here is the painting, and a recent photograph of the same scene:

Now let's have a look at the painting, 'Room at Arles':

Van Gogh painted three versions of this picture, all of which have slightly different colour palettes. The picture we're looking at is the third version, painted in 1889 The room is his bedroom at 2, Place Lamartine in Arles, (also known as the Yellow House), which Van Gogh rented for 15 francs a month. The door to the right opens on to the staircase, and the door to the left leads to the guest room that Van Gogh's friend Gauguin stayed in. The window in the front wall looks onto Place Lamartine and the public gardens.

So, how to create a room design based on this painting? What I'm not going to do is try and create a replica of this room. So the room design won't include a single bed, a chair with a rush seat, a red blanket, and so on. If that was my intention, the room might look something like this:

I found this photo on Desire to Inspire - I wonder if the person who sleeps in this bed has deliberately created a near-replica of Room at Arles?

What I am intending to do is create a design inspired by the painting - so looking at how the composition, the colour palette, the history of the painting, the life of the artist, and the general mood of the painting could potentially translate into a room design.

Van Gogh wrote to his brother and described the painting in the following way:

"This time it simply reproduces my bedroom; but colour must be abundant in this part, its simplification adding a rank of grandee to the style applied to the objects, getting to suggest a certain rest or dream. [...] I have painted the walls pale violet. The ground with checked material. The wooden bed and the chairs, yellow like fresh butter; the sheet and the pillows, lemon light green. The bedspread, scarlet coloured. The window, green. The washbasin, orangey; the tank, blue. The doors, lilac. And, that is all. The square pieces of furniture must express unswerving rest; also the portraits on the wall, the mirror, the bottle, and some costumes. The white colour has not been applied to the picture, so its frame will be white, aimed to get me even with the compulsory rest recommended for me. I have depicted no type of shade or shadow; I have only applied simple plain colours, like those in crêpes."

What's interesting is that if Van Gogh truly intended 'Room at Arles' to represent "a certain rest of dream" and "unswerving rest", he was not particularly successful.

The vivid colours leap out of the painting, while the composition and perspective (the room was not rectangular, but trapezoid) lead the viewer all around the painting.

The eye is drawn to the black shutters at the back of the painting, while the weight of the large expanse of floor at the front pulls the viewer out again. The eye of the viewer moves around the room looking at the paintings on the wall, the clothes hanging behind the bed, the items on the wash-stand, cloth hooked on the nail next to the door. The effect is anything but restful.

Therefore, a room inspired by 'Room at Arles' would have to include vibrant colours. It would need to include plenty of interesting elements that would draw the eye around the room, but equally the design should not be overly cluttered, because the painting is composed with simple lines, and large flat, blocks of colour - it is not a fussy, detailed painting (when compared to the paintings of the Italian Renaissance, for example).

'Room at Arles' is painted in a modern style - so the room design should have a modern feel to it. However, the rough brush strokes used to create the painting provide a rustic feel - so I'm thinking either rustic with modern edge, or rustic style presented in a modern way.

Here are a couple of close-ups from 'Cafe Terrace at Night' that show the rough brush strokes in more details (I couldn't find a close-up of 'Room at Arles') - the technique is called impasto, and is used to describe a picture where the paint has been layered on very thickly. This gives Van Gogh's paintings depth and texture:

Therefore, a room design based on 'Room at Arles' should include textures and layers, provided by different types of fabrics and materials.

Finally, I think that a design based on this painting should include a sense of the Mediteranean, of the south of France, and of Provencal style - because this is the landscape that inspired Van Gogh to create the painting.

So, in summary:

  • Vibrant colours - blues, yellows, browns, oranges and greens
  • Interesting elements in the room to catch the eye
  • Clean lines and shapes
  • Rustic/modern feel
  • Textures and layers
  • Mediterranean/Provencal style.

My next step will be to create an inspiration board based on this brief - I'll be back to share this once it's ready. And in the meantime, I'd love to your thoughts on how you personally interpret the painting - mine is only one opinion!