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The Bedroom: A Van Gogh restoration up close

March 24, 2010

Vincent Van Gogh, The Bedroom, 1888, oil on canvas, The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

The Van Gogh museum has started a wonderful blog to keep track of the restoration of one of their most beloved works, Van Gogh’s Bedroom. The painting depicts Van Gogh’s room at his yellow house in Arles, where he dreamed of creating an artist’s colony away from the distractions of Paris with his colleague Paul Gaugin and others. Unfortunately, he never realized that dream as his days with Gaugin were fraught and ended within a few months. Thankfully, this beautiful painting was a remnant of that time in Van Gogh’s life and remains an intimate look into his every day surroundings. The original version (there are two other versions, copies of this one by Van Gogh, at the Art Institute in Chicago and Musee d’Orsay) was damaged by the flood of the Rhône while Van Gogh was staying at the hospital in Arles. The water damage is visible on the surface of the painting today, not to mention the normal wear and tear of over 100 years of life. In his letters to his brother Theo, Van Gogh described the walls as lavender and the sheets as lime green… from what we can see now, it is obvious that the colors have since faded and chemically changed since Van Gogh painted the scene and a careful restoration would be a solution.

Water damage and craquelure on the surface of the painting.

The thought that goes into the restoration of a painting has always fascinated me – the head of conservation at the Van Gogh Museum, Ella Hendriks, took an entire year just to contemplate how to approach this project, which had been on the list of paintings in need of restoration since the 1980’s. The philosophy behind restoration, how much is too much or too little, is a constant debate in the art world and one you can witness the results of all around you. One only has to visit a museum in Russia to see the hands-off method there, paintings are covered in a thin film of grey and conservationists argue against “restoring” them only to make them look falsely new and take away the honor of the patina they have gained over the years. Meanwhile, any museum in the United States seems to be stocked with paintings full of bright colors and sharp lines. While the argument can be made that restoration techniques will only continue to improve over time (I shudder to think at the damage done in the past by restorers with a less-than-delicate hand) and that one should put off restoration until the best possible method is achieved, there is something to be said about approaching it in a thoughtful and informed manner. The deep knowledge of both art and science needed to tackle a project like this is mind boggling… and I am so excited to be able to witness the conservation team’s efforts. You can access the blog here (and I recommend the video posted on March 17 which is very informative).

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