Why We’re Still Obsessed With Van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh left us with countless questions when he died in 1890. Can exploring his paintings from the inside answer them?


I’m eating froyo in a van Gogh painting.


Specifically, it’s chocolate-dipped strawberry froyo. And specifically, the painting is The Bedroom, 1889. It has a lived-in look with well-trodden floors and walls that could probably use a new coat of paint.

It’s the second of a trio of Bedroom paintings made by van Gogh, and it’s probably the one you remember best. The first was painted in 1888, after van Gogh had moved to a new home in Arles in the south of France. That first Bedroom is bright, cartoony, and optimistic, as if he saw a fresh start there. And while van Gogh would die in just two years, it was during his time in Arles that he would produce almost every painting you recognize as van Gogh–Sunflowers, Starry Night (both of them), The Café Terrace on the Place du Forum, and The Night Café.

The second of the three bedroom paintings–the one I’m in now–van Gogh produced just a year after the first. By now he had no longer lived in this room because he’d been admitted to a mental institution, and he copied his original painting as though he was poring over an old memory in his mind. In this revised Bedroom, every surface, from the floors to the walls to the chair, is worn. Objects are more textured. Colors are more varied. And the result is what I interpret as beauty without the rose tint–seeing something for all its flaws yet loving it maybe more for them.

Next month the Art Institute of Chicago wraps up its Van Gogh’s Bedrooms exhibit, which assembled van Gogh’s three bedroom paintings together for the first time for visitors to examine side by side.

But the three paintings are only part of the exhibit, which brings van Gogh’s paintings to physical life so that we can walk inside of them and even touch the paint. It also features a full-scale recreation of van Gogh’s bedroom, by furniture maker Gerard Kerr, complete with faithful historic furnishings, so you can see the original source of his impressionist interpretation. Meanwhile, to promote the show, Leo Burnett commissioned Ravenswood Studio–a production facility that’s built set pieces for basically every Chicago museum–to create yet another van Gogh room in the style of the artist’s paintings.


That’s the promotional Chicago-based Airbnb room that I’m laying in now, shoes on van Gogh’s bed, a mattress that needs to be replaced, curious of the strange circumstances that led us to be so culturally obsessed with this work more than a hundred years after the death of its creator. Van Gogh’s Bedrooms is the most-visited special exhibition the Art Institute has run in 15 years, with an average visitor count of almost 5,000 people per day. We are no longer content to merely gaze at his paintings, and will go through incredible extremes to step inside of them.

In fact, the Art Institute is hardly the first to let us walk inside van Gogh’s art. Within the last year, software designer Mac Cauley has created a jaw-dropping VR simulation called The Night Café, that allows you to walk through the painting by the same name, while a team of German researchers have created a system that learned from van Gogh’s work to apply the style to personal media like, say, our Instagram videos. It’s like we’re all obsessed with building our own van Gogh version of What Dreams May Come.

“I felt that if we were going to make an exhibition around the bedroom, and what it meant to him, we had to have the [real] bedroom. To not show the physical space and yet have all this information about it from his letters . . . would miss the point,” says Gloria Groom, curator of Van Gogh’s Bedrooms. “I just felt like you need the physical reality of it to bring it home.”

Indeed, the historically accurate bedroom at the Art Institute serves as a grounding baseline to the whimsical Airbnb. The space is claustrophobically small, the furniture is Puritan-conservative, and the colors are so earthy and dull that van Gogh’s familiar paintings feel wild and experimental again. The most striking element to me is the room’s bed frame. It’s always felt hyperbolically warped in his painting, through its combination of perspective and vivid color. Here it looks like a dutifully produced twin bed worthy of a spot in a nice convent. Seeing this chasm between reality and impressionism, I could appreciate van Gogh’s artistic filter more than ever.

But describing van Gogh’s particular artistic appeal can be difficult, even for experts. “You run into clichés, and you can’t escape it. I feel like the artist put something of himself into his work in a different way than most artist do,” Groom says. “[In his letters] he’s an intellectual. But when it comes to putting paint on canvas, I’m not going to say he’s naive, but he’s very direct. His paintings have a directness that you don’t often feel at that time.”


There’s a directness and a sculptural quality to his work that you just can’t see in any digital scan. Van Gogh layered paint with an almost gratuitous thickness onto the canvas, and used stroke patterns to add a three-dimensional texture to the ground or sky. And perhaps it’s this very sculptural nature to van Gogh’s work that makes it so easily translatable to 3-D space.

The Bedroom—all three versions, chronologically. (The green floor version was produced second, for reference.)

As I run my hand on the footboard of the Airbnb bed, I can feel the efforts of a small team of artists and carpenters who translated the strokes into this believable sculpture. First they built the wooden bed frame, then they layered on a texturing liquid to look like van Gogh’s strokes, and then they actually painted it to create this sticky texture that felt a bit like it was still drying.

Other details catch my eye, too. The very edges of the chairs and tables have been outlined in black, so their own three-dimensionality feels like it’s being faked as an illusion (even though of course it’s not!) before your eyes. Every corner has been sanded down so there are no sharp lines, since 90-degree angles don’t exist in van Gogh paintings. And later I’m told that the reason the wall frames look so strange is that they were built, not as perfect rectangles, but in hodgepodge of widths and thicknesses.

When I try to grab the water vase on the side table, and I realize it’s been glued down. So has the brush. It feels a little rude to place a can of Tecate in this carefully crafted bedside scene, but then again, van Gogh was known for drinking alcohol to excess. (Though there are no known accounts of van Gogh eating froyo.)

Groom tells me that during her own visit to this Airbnb–a promotional tool that she had no part in curating–she was taken by the detail, but she felt a little like she’d been put on stage, and that at any moment the curtains would come down and the cameras would pop out.


On one hand, I know what she means. What no one tells you in the Airbnb listing is that only three of the bedroom’s four walls are finished. Ravenswood Studio explains it was a respectful gesture to van Gogh’s work, to not extrapolate ideas that weren’t part of the original frame, essentially. But it also means that, from the bed, your eyes see a white wall and a hallway into an otherwise modern high-rise condo in downtown Chicago. In this sense, you are literally part of a van Gogh painting to anyone looking into the room, but from inside the painting, you’re always looking out.

Courtesy of the author

Indeed, there were moments when I thought to myself–as strange as this will sound–that I’ve experienced life in a van Gogh painting before, and maybe even more vividly, through VR. Mac Cauley spent 500 hours developing The Night Café, which you can download free in the Oculus store, that allows you to walk through this nocturnal space, listening to a piano playing in the background, before bumping into van Gogh himself.

“I thought, how cool would it be if I entered these paintings I loved? What would it even be like?” Cauley says. “Will it feel completely unreal and you can’t even relate to that experience? Or somehow, does it work? I think to some extent it does.”

He, too, faithfully rendered van Gogh’s brush strokes into 3-D space, analyzing several works to develop a reasonable facsimile. He even used color matching tools to bring the exact colors from the painting into his simulation. The app necessitated an intimate deconstruction of van Gogh’s work, and Cauley found that for all the sense of color in van Gogh’s paintings, there’s often no sense of light. This forced him to wrestle with adding the right amount of shadow to give the user necessary depth cues, but not ruin the aesthetic. Whatever balance he found certainly feels right. Ask anyone who’s tried The Night Café, and they’ll tell you, it’s van Gogh–not as a painting, but simulated as a world.

The Night CaféMac Cauly via Youtube

“I actually look at VR in many ways as a similar experience to a Disney ride. It’s supposed to be a fantasy experience, and everything around you is created by someone’s imagination,” Cauley says. “It’s not as high art to go into a Disney ride, but there are similarities in wanting to go into a painting, too. A painting is a personal thing. It’s almost like going into someone’s mind.”


And maybe that’s the real nature of our obsession with walking into van Gogh’s work. Whether it’s a room at a museum, or an Airbnb, or a VR headset, these spaces, with all the adventurous appeal of a Disney ride, offer us a way to enter the mind of an artist we adore–but will never understand any other way.

“I can’t think of another artist who is just universally recognizable. That language. You could be anywhere in the world and it’s not just the subject matter. It’s the colors, the style. He really is unique,” Groom says. “And to think how short a career he had. To me it’s all just mind-boggling. In a really good way.”

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach