From October to December of 1888, Paul Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh lived together in the Yellow House, Van Gogh’s home in Arles in southern France. This famous artistic and personal encounter has been well documented over the years. Among the most recent chronicles of those months is Martin Gayford’s The Yellow House, which combines biography, history, and helpful, evocative artistic analysis. In the Acknowledgments at the end of the book, Gayford mentions his “dissatisfaction with conventional biography” and relates his desire not just to tell the story of Van Gogh and Gauguin, but also “to put the reader in the same room as the person read about, even inside his head.”
Van Gogh arrived in Arles in February 1888. In May he moved into the Yellow House, and almost immediately started planning for visitors, especially fellow artists who would, as he imagined it, come together to collaborate and form a new artistic community. Gauguin was the artist he courted most enthusiastically. Why had Van Gogh settled in Arles in the first place? Partly because the surrounding landscape, much of it flat, reclaimed marshland, would have reminded him of Dutch landscapes. Also, he craved the warmth of the south, as well as the clear light that, he felt, gave colors the brightness and flatness of his beloved Japanese prints.
Gauguin finally came to Arles on October 23, 1888. As he and Van Gogh started, haltingly, to paint side-by-side, Gayford cogently remarks, “Both men possessed huge talents but neither their ideas nor their temperaments were identical. Apparently, Gauguin was the master; in reality, for most of the time – though he did not entirely know it – Vincent was the greater painter, though his confidence was low and Gauguin’s high.” Both were largely self-taught, and as Gayford notes, “that made them more open to innovations of every kind: stylistic, spiritual, technical.”
Living such a claustrophobic life was bound to produce tension between two such different people. Gauguin famously wrote at one point, “Between two such beings as he and I, the one a perfect volcano, the other boiling inwardly, some sort of struggle was preparing.” Their very different tastes in art, for instance, led to frequent arguments. As Gauguin wrote to Émile Bernard, “He admires Daudet, Daubigny, Ziem and the great Rousseau, all of whom I feel nothing for. And he hates Ingres, Raphael, Degas, all of whom I admire; I reply, ‘Corporal, you’re right,’ to get some peace.” (Gauguin probably meant Daumier rather than Alphonse Daudet, a writer, but the point still holds.) Gayford elaborates: “Vincent had a Dutch feeling for earthy, physical paint in which anyone could trace the movement of the artist’s hand.” Gauguin largely disapproved of the rough surface of Van Gogh’s work, even suggesting at one point that he rinse his paintings in water in order to soften the texture.
During one of Arles’s many periods of bad weather, Van Gogh produced, very quickly, his famous studies of his and Gauguin’s chairs. He had long had a strong feeling about the emotional resonance of furniture, and owned a print of a well-known depiction of Charles Dickens’s study, complete with empty chair, done shortly after the author’s death by English artist Luke Fildes. The two paintings, Gayford relates in one of my favorite passages of analysis in the book, sum up many of the differences and conflicts being played out between the two artists. Van Gogh’s chair – colored in yellow and blue like his paintings of “fields of wheat against the summer sky,” simple and rustic, lit by the sun, with pipe and tobacco sitting on the chair’s rough surface and sprouting onions in the background – suggests spontaneity and instinct. Gauguin’s chair – reddish brown and green, lit by a gas lamp and a candle during the evening hours, with gentle curves and two French novels resting on its comfortable surface – is evocative of reflection and imagination.
Interestingly, no photographs of Van Gogh from after the age of eighteen exist, only paintings. Gauguin painted his portrait at the beginning of December, titled Painter of Sunflowers. Gauguin gave it as a gift to Van Gogh’s brother Theo, who called it “the best portrait that’s been made of him in terms of capturing his inner being.” But Van Gogh saw in it incipient madness: nine months later, he wrote from the asylum at St. Rémy, “that was really me, very tired and charged with electricity as I was then.” Gayford sees some of Gauguin’s own features – the low forehead, small eyes, and brown (not red) hair – in the depiction of Van Gogh here, and broadens out the painting, not entirely convincingly, as “a perfect metaphor for the intermingling – the exchanging of ideas and methods, the blurring of identities – taking place in the Yellow House.”
One of Van Gogh’s major paintings of this period was La Berceuse, a portrait of Madame Roulin, whose husband and family Van Gogh had befriended. Gayford unfurls the numerous influences on the work, most of them obscure and literary – the peace of the sailor’s quarters in Pierre Loti’s book Icelandic Fisherman, the ornate wallpaper mentioned in Frederik van Eeden’s novel De Kleine Johannes (which has turned into a lavish, brightly colored garden of dahlias in Van Gogh’s painting), and figures of female saints in stained glass windows and ex votos. Van Gogh’s own description of the color scheme gives a sense of the challenge he faced in this work: “the reds moving through to pure orange, building up again in the flesh tones to the chromes, passing through the pinks and blending with the olive and malachite greens.”
Tensions between Gauguin and Van Gogh continued to heighten, and on Sunday, December 23 came the decisive event. As Gauguin walked the streets after dinner, Van Gogh came after him, possibly wielding a razor blade (Gauguin’s two accounts of the meeting differ). Rather than risk another confrontation, Gauguin chose to spend the night at a hotel. Later that evening, Van Gogh returned home and sliced off his left ear, or a good portion of it. After staunching the considerable flow of blood (from the auricular artery), he wrapped the remains of the ear in some newspaper. His head and the wound hidden with a hat, he took the package to a local brothel and delivered it into the hands of a prostitute named Rachel.
Why the ear? It seems, according to Gayford, to have been tied up with Van Gogh’s continuing spiritual struggles. He continually saw his life through the prism of art and literature, and Gayford mentions two possible influences: Christ in the garden of Gethsemane, when St. Peter cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant, and Zola’s novel The Sin of Father Mouret, in which the ear of the local friar, Brother Archangias, is cut off at the funeral of a young girl who had killed herself after a sexual encounter with Father Mouret. Van Gogh himself claimed not to remember much of the incident, and was never able to explain what happened and why. Gauguin soon left town, possibly that same night, and never saw Van Gogh again.
Periods of recovery – during which he often painted at a furious pace (completing, during one stretch, some 76 paintings in two months) – alternated with bouts of psychosis and depression for the rest of Van Gogh’s life, as he moved from the Yellow House to the hospital at St. Rémy, and eventually to the small village of Auvers-sur-Oise, north of Paris. Recalling that many in Van Gogh’s family had suffered from mental disorders, Gayford briefly reviews the possible causes for Van Gogh’s problems, and arrives, as many now do, at bipolar disorder. Van Gogh’s own accounts of his illness are frequently terrifying: as he once wrote to his sister Wil, “I didn’t in the least know what I said, what I wanted and what I did … moods of indescribable mental anguish, sometimes moments when the veil of time and the fatality of circumstances seemed to be torn apart for an instant.”
Gayford takes whatever opportunities he can find to broaden his narrative to include other phases of the lives of the two artists. While this extra detail does often help to give further context to the main line of the story, some of these digressions are a bit awkward, and necessarily some elements are given short shrift or simplified – Van Gogh’s religion, for instance, his views on which changed radically, many times, over the course of his life.
An inevitable comparison with Gayford’s book would be the account of this time in Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith’s recent Van Gogh: The Life (reviewed here). Rather than Gayford’s relative emphasis on the collaboration and interchange of ideas, Naifeh and Smith’s version, spanning several chapters, puts more stress on the personal and artistic differences between the two artists. Gauguin felt no particular attraction to Province, although his success with the Arlésienne women thereabouts was something that Van Gogh was never able to share. Van Gogh’s enthusiasm for working rapidly, en plein air, diverged strongly from Gauguin’s more methodical approach and preference to paint from memory in the studio. For a time, say Naifeh and Smith, Van Gogh tried to emulate Gauguin, but to little effect. Naifeh and Smith also mention that Rachel, the recipient of Van Gogh’s ear, had been one of Gauguin’s favorites.
On July 29, 1890 Van Gogh died as a result of a gunshot wound to the chest (whether he shot himself, as most including Gayford believe, or was shot by a young man in the neighborhood, as Naifeh and Smith argue, is a discussion for another day). Gauguin’s reaction was oddly restrained, in many ways summarizing the strange relationship between the two men that Gayford depicts: “Sad though this death may be, I am not very grieved, for I knew it was coming and I knew how this poor fellow suffered in his struggles with madness. To die at this time is a great happiness for him, for it puts an end to his sufferings and if he returns in another life he will harvest the fruit of his fine conduct in this world (according to the law of the Buddha).”