The Impressionist Home

A web piece from Smithsonian Magazine, “Step Into Van Gogh’s Brilliant Bedroom” lead me down an interesting cul-de-sac this morning. I’ve been wondering about rooms as jigs that shape behavior for a while, and I’m really interested in the Art Institute of Chicago’s airbnb project that allows you to stay in a replica of this famous interior. Would a person start to think like Van Gogh if they slept there?

It reminded me of a song by David Byrne, “Social Studies”, which I used a long time ago to teach extended possibilities for rhetorical analysis. It was never the hit with students that I hoped it would be.


The basic premise is that in order to understand people, you might become them if you consume what they consume. It’s not that outlandish, really. Marketing companies depend on getting us to buy products that allow us to be like the model or spokes-celebrity who shills for them. My longstanding interest in shopping malls stems from the belief that understanding what people choose to buy and how they buy it is important to the understanding society as a whole.

However, lately I’ve taken a deeper turn. I think that lived environments are important not because of what we buy to put in them, but because of the historical reasons why we need/choose these objects to begin with.

Sometime soon, I want to start writing about Wendy Hitchmough’s The Arts and Crafts Lifestyle and DesignI really like the organization of the book as well as the content—it moves from room to room to discuss not only the decoration and furnishing of the rooms, but the social rituals that furnished reasons for the rooms and their contents. It’s focus on the British strain of Arts and Crafts has really filled a gap in my education in that regard.

In reading about Carl and Karin Larsson recently, I cited a passage from an essay by Gillian Naylor that cites Herman Muthesius proclamation that the real innovation of the English was the creation of “the artistic house.” Wendy Hitchmough begins by invoking Muthesius as well, but from a different angle:

Hermann Muthesius concluded that the English derived their confidence and easy assurance from a tyrannical system of rules and customs which dictated what people must wear and how they must behave, and this determined the furnishing and arrangement of their surroundings. It was never necessary to worry about formalities—about where to put the display cabinet, for example, or which room would be auspicious for a proposal of marriage—because the matters were ruled by strict social conventions. “The most striking characteristic that the foreigner notices about the English is that their patterns of life are immutable and fixed for all time. . .Not only  is the domestic routine in the individual and as punctual as clockwork throughout the year but all households of similar economic standing are as like one another as peas in a pod.” (8, 10)

The only way to break free from this regimentation, Hitchmough argues, was “the artistic home.” In the last few decades of the 19th century, it seems that the artistic home was an often repeated trope. It’s there in Van Gogh’s letters as well. His thoughts about home are amazingly profound. From Letter 674:

How I’d like to set myself up so that I could have a home of my own! I never stop telling myself that if at the start we’d spent even 500 francs on furnishing, we would already have recouped all of it, and I would have furniture and I would be free of lodging-house keepers by now. I’m not pressing the point, but what we’re doing now isn’t wise. There will always be artists passing through here, wishing to escape the harshness of the north. And I feel myself that I’ll always be among that number. True that it would probably be better to go a bit further down, where you’d be more sheltered. True that it won’t be entirely easy to find, but all the more reason; if we set ourselves up here, the costs of moving shouldn’t be enormous. From here to Bordighera, for example, or somewhere near Nice. Once we’d settled, we’d stay there for the rest of our lives. Waiting until you’re very rich is a sorry system, and that’s what I don’t like about the De Goncourts, although it’s the truth — they end up paying a hundred thousand francs for their home and their peace of mind. Now we’d have it for less than a thousand, in that we’d have a studio in the south where we could put someone up.

But if we have to make a fortune first……… we’ll be totally neurotic by the time we reach that sort of tranquillity, and that’s worse than our present state, in which we can still stand all sorts of noises. But let’s be wise enough to know that we’re getting dull-witted all the same.

It’s better to lodge others than not to be lodged ourselves here, especially lodging with an innkeeper, which even when you pay doesn’t provide you with a lodging where you feel at home.

The reference to the De Goncourts is a matter of some discussion among Van Gogh scholars, apparently, as to how much or little Van Gogh had read of their work. In describing Van Gogh’s strategies and rhetoric as a letter writer, the suggestion has been made that Vincent might have viewed Edmond and Jules De Goncourt as a sort of crusading role model for the Van Gogh brothers, and they had written about “the artistic house.”

Félix Nadar, Portrait of Edmond et Jules Goncourt
Félix Nadar, Portrait of Edmond et Jules Goncourt

References tothe De Goncourt brothers occur in several of Van Gogh’s letters. I found the Wikipedia entry on  them interesting. French naturalism has had a lot of impact on many visual artists. The 1911 Britannica describes their specific flavor in this way:

“To the Goncourts humanity is as pictorial a thing as the world it moves in; they do not search further than ‘the physical basis of life,’ and they find everything that can be known of that unknown force written visibly upon the sudden faces of little incidents, little expressive moments.”

This aligns closely with Richard Sennett’s assertion that character, for the Victorians, is something that can be “read” from the external appearance of things.  It’s a shift to the visual coupled with an embrace of the emotional and contingent:

“The soul, to them, is a series of moods, which succeed one another, certainly without any of the too arbitrary logic of the novelist who has conceived of character as a solid or consistent thing. Their novels are hardly stories at all, but picture-galleries, hung with pictures of the momentary aspects of the world.”

This returns full circle to the “situated” versus “planned” worldview in the AI articles I was exploring yesterday in remarkable ways. Recall that Muthesius spoke of an English “planned” lifestyle that Hitchmough counterpoised with an Arts and Crafts “artistic house” alternative. Life, for an artist, is contingent and arbitrary. Nonetheless, Van Gogh had big plans:

It’s not the least little bit urgent, but I have my idea. I really want to make of it — an artists’ house but not precious, on the contrary, nothing precious, but everything from the chair to the painting having character.

So for the beds I bought local beds, two wide double beds, instead of iron beds. It gives a look of solidity, durability, calm, and if it takes a bit more bed-linen, that’s too bad, but it must have character.

Most fortunately I have a charwoman who’s very loyal; without that I wouldn’t dare begin the business of living in my own place. She’s quite old and has a mixed bunch of kids, and she keeps my tiles nice and red and clean.

I wouldn’t be able to explain to you how pleased I am to find a big, serious job this way. Because I hope it’ll be a true decoration that I’m going to undertake there.

So, as I’ve already told you, I’m going to paint my own bed, there’ll be 3 subjects. Perhaps a naked woman, I haven’t decided, perhaps a cradle with a child; I don’t know, but I’ll take my time.

I now no longer feel any hesitation about staying here, because ideas for work are coming to me in abundance. I now plan to buy some article for the house every month. And with patience, the house will be worth something for the furniture and the decorations. (Letter 677)

The plan, ultimately, was to exhibit both studies for the decoration of the house, and then the house itself. Van Gogh’s emphasis on physical decoration is supported by a definite amount of reading on the subject:

I read in the literary supplement of Saturday’s Figaro (15 Sept.) the description of an Impressionist house. This house was built, as would be the bottoms of bottles, of bricks of rounded glass — purple glass. With the sun glancing off it, the yellow glints flashing from it, it produced an extraordinary effect.

To support these walls of glass bricks in the shape of purple eggs, they had devised a support in black and gilded iron, representing strange shoots of vines and other climbing plants. This purple house was right in the middle of a garden, all of whose paths were made of a very yellow sand. The beds of ornamental flowers were naturally most extraordinary in their coloration. This house, if I remember well, must be in Auteuil. Without changing anything at the house, either now or later, I’d nevertheless like to make it, through the decoration, an artist’s house. That will come. I shake your hand firmly. (Letter 681)

Scholarly notes trace this reference to “an Impressionist house” back to the De Goncourts, but it doesn’t really matter if it’s correct or not; the article Van Gogh refers to actually describes “a modernist house,” so suffice it to say that the house is beginning to develop into an extension of beliefs, attitudes, and predilections of the designers and inhabitants. Van Gogh, like many others at the time, was concerned with putting together a well considered lived space.

At present I’ve also bought a dressing-table with all the necessaries, and my own little bedroom is furnished.

Gauguin’s or another lodger’s — we’ll still need a dressing-table and a chest of drawers, and downstairs I’ll need a large stove and a cupboard.

None of that’s at all urgent, and as a result I can already see the goal, to have the means of having a roof over my head for a good long time.

You wouldn’t believe how much that calms me; I have such a passion to make — an artist’s house — but a practical one and not the usual studio full of curios.

I’m also thinking of planting two oleanders outside the door, in tubs.

Anyway, on this studio we’re probably spending several hundred francs less than Russell, for example, who spends thousands.  And actually, even if I had the choice between the two, for my part I’d prefer the few-hundred-francs method, as long as each piece of furniture was four-square and substantial. But still, the room in which I’ll put up those who pass through here will be like a boudoir, and when it’s finished you’ll see that it’s not a haphazard creation, but a job done that way deliberately. (Letter 685)

The sense of hope in these letters is almost palpable. Like any good frugal house-husband, Van Gogh is striving to shape his surroundings by careful selection and decoration, to make everyone know he meant to do that. This is nearly contemporary with Carl and Karin Larsson and most of the British Arts and Crafts designers.

There was something in the air internationally regarding intelligent domestic design and everyone wanted in on it.