In the summer of 1889, Van Gogh lived and worked in Arles, a city in the south of France. Here he made a series of paintings of sunflowers which were intended to decorate the guest room where his friend Paul Gauguin was staying at the time. Van Gogh eventually painted 4 of these still lifes; only 2 he deemed good enough to decorate Gauguin’s bedroom. Later he made 3 more copies of these works, one of which is on display in the Van Gogh Museum.
The potato eaters (1885)
This painting of a peasant family at the dinner table marked a new direction in Van Gogh’s work. He wanted to become a good figure painter and regarded this work as some kind of master test. Van Gogh experimented with various compositions and used dark, sober colours to portray reality as realistically as possible – without idealising it, as he felt so many other painters tended to do.
The bedroom (1888)
This painting depicts Van Gogh’s bedroom in the ‘Yellow House’, the studio he rented in Arles. This work stands out for its bright, contrasting swaths of colour, the thickly applied paint and strange spatial organisation. The back wall of the room seems slanted. This was not a mistake by the painter, but based on reality; this part of the yellow house actually was slanted. In other areas the objects seem tilted because the perspective is not right. Van Gogh deliberately painted the objects ‘flat’ and omitted any shadows so the work would resemble a Japanese print.
From 1889 until 1890, Van Gogh was committed to a psychiatric hospital in Saint-Rémy. During that period he sought refuge in painting nature themes. At the end of his crisis, around 1890, he mostly dedicated himself to painting still lifes of flowers. He painted enormous bouquets of purple irises, of which one depicted a bouquet against a bright yellow background. The differing complementary colours only intensify the colourings. Earlier, in Field of flowers near Arles (1888), Van Gogh had already portrayed the bright purple irises that fascinated him so deeply.
Wheatfield with crows (1890)
Wheatfield with crows is one of Van Gogh’s most famous paintings and probable the one that has fuelled the most speculation. It was made only a few weeks before he died. It had been argued that this would be his last painting and that the dark gloomy sky with crows and the dead-end path would foreshadow his death. However, this theory has never been proven. The wheatfield was one of Van Gogh’s favourite subjects.
Relax at Museumplein
Extra tip: the Van Gogh Museum, Rijksmuseum and Stedelijk Museum are centred around Museumplein. After a museum visit, the large square is perfect for a delicious lunch or a drink, or to simply grab a bench and enjoy people-watching or soak up the sun (weather permitting).