I love story. I love the written word. A single beautifully written sentence can move me to tears, leaving me filled with awe and wonder. When I hear someone mention art and artists, my mind goes first to books and writers. It takes another beat for my brain to include painters, actors, dancers, sculptors, musicians and the like.
That said, there are some visual artists whose work I love. Even though it’s not original I adore the work of Claude Monet. If asked my favorite painter, it would be him.
Interestingly, however, if asked my favorite painting it would not be a Monet. My favorite all-time painting is Vincent van Gogh’s The Bedroom. It’s a painting of his bedroom when he lived in Arles, France.
I took an art history class in college. The hugely expensive required schoolbook for the class was filled with full-color photos of some of the art discussed in the book. At the end of the class, I sold the book back to the university bookstore but not before carefully removing a few of the pages. I’m not proud of myself but it is what I did. And, yes, Van Gogh’s The Bedroom was one of them. I framed it and the others I pilfered. They became home decor in my first apartment.
Then years later when my finances improved and I rehabilitated my thieving ways, on a trip to Washington DC, I purchased van Gogh’s The Bedroom at one of the Smithsonian museums. Interestingly, I don’t think the painting was there. Or if it was, it was on loan, and I never actually saw it.
The poster itself wasn’t expensive. As I recall it was $20 or $30. When I returned home, I had it professionally framed. That, I clearly remember, was $90 because it seemed crazy expensive to me and wacky that the framing cost more than the thing I was having framed. But I sucked it up and had it done.
It hung in both houses I owned in Anchorage before I sold it for $10 at one of my early garage sales. I still miss it a little. But a large framed piece of art just wouldn’t work in my trailer.
Do you know the piece? What you may not know is that there are actually three versions. You can read the reason why van Gogh did three with an internet search. The basic differences between the various version are the art on the walls and the coloring of the flooring. He painted all three between October 1888 and September 1889, finishing the last one less than a year before he died at the age of 37 from a self-inflicted gunshot to the chest.
A Profound Moment with Art
I was in Chicago for a work conference 16 years ago. My cousin lives in the suburbs of Chicago so I added a few extra days to the conference and stayed with her. One of our days, we drove back into Chicago and went to the Art Institute of Chicago followed by dinner at the Cheesecake Factory. You might remember from my trip to Tampa for an RV Show that I love Cheesecake Factory and that time in Chicago was the first time I’d ever been there.
We were wandering the museum and I saw several paintings by Monet and several by van Gogh. What I didn’t know was they have one of the versions of The Bedroom. Version number two, for the curious.
From a little ways away, I saw it. There was was a couple standing in front of it. I went and stood beside them, waiting my turn to stand in front of it. Eavesdropping on the conversation, the woman said it was the red bedspread that made the piece brilliant.
I didn’t (and still don’t) know about any of that. I only know I like it. After a few minutes of admiring whispers they moved on. My turn. I moved to stand directly in front of it, my face only a breath away from it, and just stared.
Then—and this was a complete surprise to me—I started crying.
To this day, I’m still not sure if my reaction was to the painting itself or if it was a reaction to the fact that I was standing in front of the real thing. It was no longer a page stolen out of a book or a poster on my wall. This was the canvas van Gogh put his brush to. I am still awed and humbled even remembering that moment.
Post script: While writing this piece, I learned that the three versions were brought together for the first time in 2016 by the Art Institute of Chicago. On the one hand, for me, that would’ve been a monumental moment if I could’ve seen in it. On the other, the guards would’ve had to drag away a sobbing puddle of a woman. So perhaps best I didn’t know about it.