Published: March 24, 2016

Nesting: How Scientific Collections Helped Reveal an Artist’s Inspiration

Kate Golembiewski, PR and Science Communications Manager, Public Relations

Alert

The Field Museum is home to 30 million specimens that get sent around the world—most of the time, they’re used for scientific research, but this time, they wound up in an art museum right here in Chicago.

The Field Museum is home to 30 million specimens that get sent around the world—most of the time, they’re used for scientific research, but this time, they wound up in an art museum right here in Chicago.

The Art Institute of Chicago has a new exhibition featuring Van Gogh’s paintings of bedrooms that explores his artistic influences and the concept of home. His fascination with homes included a collection of birds’ nests that became the subject matter of several of his paintings.

“Early on in the exhibition planning process, we asked ourselves what stories hadn’t already been told about Van Gogh’s bedroom paintings, and we hit upon the theme of home, of haven and refuge,” explained Allison Perelman, a research associate at the Art Institute. Under the direction of department chair and curator Gloria Groom, Perelman and the team of researchers delved into Van Gogh’s letters to see how these themes came up in his life, and they found the nest connection. “His love of birds’ nests went back to childhood for him—he kept nests displayed in the window of his attic bedroom as a child. As an adult, he hired boys to go out to town and collect birds’ nests for ten cents each. The more we researched his love of birds’ nests and the craftsmanship, the more we knew we wanted to explore this theme.”

And when it came time to put together the exhibition, the curators at the Art Institute wanted to incorporate real birds’ nests into the design. “Van Gogh kept a collection of birds’ nests in his studio, with thirty nests perched on a felled branch he had brought inside.  We wanted to get an artistic, slightly abstract sense of what that display would have looked like,” said Perelman. But to recreate Van Gogh’s display, they needed nests. That’s where The Field came in.

“The Field’s collections contain hundreds of birds’ nests from around the world,” explained Ben Marks, The Field Museum’s Birds Collections Manager. “We have nests similar in size and shape to the ones Van Gogh painted. The Art Institute team came a couple times to see what we had available and picked the ones that most closely matched the nests in his paintings.” We don’t know exactly what kinds of birds Van Gogh’s nests were from, but the ones that The Field supplied are from a song sparrow and a marsh wren from the US.  As it turns out, The Field’s were collected in the late 1870s, just a few years before Van Gogh did his nest paintings. They were loaned out to the Art Institute for the exhibit—you can see them by an abstract tree design, near Van Gogh’s original nest paintings.

The intersection of art and science in this collaboration is one that reveals a bit of Van Gogh’s artistic sensibility and worldview. Perelman explained, “Van Gogh was working in a moment when modern art was breaking away from just representing reality—it was more stylized, and the colors were more exaggerated. But Van Gogh believed in creating art that was based in nature, filtered through the artist’s temperament. He studied the world in front of him, especially the natural world. That comes out in these paintings.”