Book Review: The Yellow House – Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in ArlesDecember 7, 2006
About five years back, I saw the show “Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South” at The Art Institute of Chicago. While I enjoyed the art, it was the story of these two soon-to-be-famous painters living together in a little house while Van Gogh slowly succumbed to mental illness that fascinated me. Like most people, I knew Van Gogh as the crazy painter who cut his ear off—even if I liked some of his paintings, I hadn’t ever really thought of him as anything more than a caricature. That show filled in many of the gray areas, and it made me excited to read a new book that goes into much more detail on the time when these two artists spent a short, magical, bizarre time living and working just a few feet from one another.
The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles by Martin Gayford takes an in-depth look at who Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin were as people, how they saw themselves as artists, how their art fit into the historical context, how they influenced each other, and how their personalities ensured that their time together would be short-lived.
While it seems amazing that Van Gogh and Gauguin could have ever been roomies, looking at the situation it wasn’t strange at all. Both were struggling painters doing what at the time was considered experimental art, and Van Gogh’s younger brother Theo was an art dealer in position to sell their paintings. Especially Gauguin’s, who was just starting to get serious nibbles from art collectors. (Van Gogh was not selling anything and his brother was supporting him.) Each had little money, each ran in similar art circles, and each had Theo van Gogh in common. So, for roughly two months in the fall and winter of 1888, they lived together.
The idea had been Van Gogh’s. He admired Gauguin’s work and was hoping their time together might be the start of an artists colony of sorts in the French town of Arles. Gauguin was five years older than Vincent, and although Van Gogh’s work would eventually outshine Gauguin’s, at the time Gauguin was more successful and Van Gogh treated him like a wise big brother. Gauguin was the alpha male in the relationship, and Van Gogh was anxious to impress him.
Author Gayford does a nice job of setting the scene in many ways. He discusses how Van Gogh’s erratic behavior and dress turned off so many of the locals. (Until the more stable Gauguin showed up, Van Gogh could rarely get anyone to sit for him as subjects of his work; in many of the portraits done at this time, Van Gogh is painting the subject from the side because the person is facing Gauguin.) He discusses how Gauguin set up systems to keep their money straight. He discusses how closely the two must have sat as they painted, and how Van Gogh would often talk and pace and suddenly paint in a frenzy, which must have been distracting to the slower, methodical style of Gauguin. He offers multiple examples of how the artists were influenced by each other, and how they created many of their most famous works during this short period together.
Despite being the Post-Impressionist odd couple, Gauguin and Van Gogh got along well for much of their time together. (Gayford does make it clear that Gauguin seemed to tolerate the ravings of Van Gogh, who often got very worked up over topics both serious and inconsequential.) When the weather was warm enough they would take their easels and paint outdoors, then come back where Gauguin would cook before they capped off many an evening in the local brothel.
While Gayford chronicles Vincent’s increasingly strange behavior (including showing up at Gauguin’s bedside in the middle of the night and then wandering away and falling quickly asleep), it’s not clear that any one event caused Van Gogh to finally slip over the line. However, he was perceptive enough to worry that his behavior might drive Gauguin away, the thought of which only seemed to heighten his state of anxiety. Gaugain, probably rightly so, started to fear a little for his own safety within the tight confines of the Yellow House. When one night Van Gogh’s behavior was worrisome enough to make Gauguin spend the night in a hotel, a despondent Van Gogh, who was now sure Gauguin would soon leave, famously sliced off his ear. He would soon be confined to a mental institution, and would be in and out of such institutions for the few remaining years of his life, until finally committing suicide at age 37.
Gayford offers some interesting theories (which you’ll have to get the book to see) on why Van Gogh chose such a gruesome act as cutting off his own ear (and then delivering it in a box to a prostitute at the brothel) . He also offers theories as to Van Gogh’s form of mental illness in general. Gayford’s conclusion is that Van Gogh probably suffered from bipolar disorder, or manic depression—a conditon that would explain why Vincent could go from states of almost uncontrollable excitement and prolific creativeness down to states of dark depression in short periods of time. It might also explain why, even in his final years, Van Gogh could have “attacks” of madness which were then followed by extended periods of sanity. In fact, after cutting his ear, Van Gogh did return to the Yellow House for a short period (Gauguin was gone) before another attack sent him from Arles for good. And one of Vincent’s most famous works, The Starry Night, was produced during one of his stable periods after leaving Arles.
The thought of having two artists on the cusp of fame living together and producing their best works while one descends dramatically into mental illness would be too unbelievable of a plot if it weren’t all true. In The Yellow House, Martin Gayford does the job of making you a fly on the wall as this unlikely plot unfolds. If you are an art lover, you’ll find plenty here to enhance your understanding of these artists’ works (I wish I could see that Art Institute show all over again after having read the book). But even if you’re only passingly familiar with their work, the drama of their story makes this a book worth reading.
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