The Odd Couple; When Paul Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh Were Housemates

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 7, 2007 | Go to article overview

The Odd Couple; When Paul Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh Were Housemates


Byline: Carol Herman, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Although Martin Gayford's "The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin and Nine Turbulent Weeks in

Arles" zooms in on the time the two vastly different artists lived under the same roof in a small town in Provence, the book inevitably belongs to Vincent (as he is called throughout the book).

With the help of the artists' letters and journals, Mr. Gayford has done a superb job of detailing Vincent's purchase of the house, his plans to set up an artists' colony there, his vision of Gauguin as "the ideal companion" and the subsequent pleadings to that effect. Nevertheless, from the beginning of the book, it is hard not to look for the signs of madness that would drive Vincent to lop of his ear and present it to a prostitute, thereby landing him in a mental institution for the rest of his life. Gauguin, the ex-financier estranged from his family, is by comparison and throughout this book, a paragon of sanity and restraint.

For better, and to a certain extent for worse, the book does hinge on Vincent's state of mind. Even as Mr. Gayford meticulously details Gauguin's arrival in Arles roughly six months after Vincent had settled in at the Yellow House, their collaboration on setting up its four rooms to their liking, the furnishings they bought (and then depicted in paintings), the food they cooked, the brothel they frequented and the extraordinary art they produced, one can't help looking for clues as to why Vincent simply fell apart.

In the first of what are many reasoned speculations about Vincent's state of mind, Mr. Gayford considers why the Dutch painter chose Arles as a place to settle down. He describes it this way:

"The previous winter in Paris, [Vincent] had some sort of breakdown, he had felt 'mental weariness,' emptiness, he was 'dimmed with sadness.' Vincent felt the country was a better and a healthier place than the town and that the southern countryside in particular would be more carefree than the gloomy North . . .

"Quite why Vincent had got off the train there, nobody ever knew. Perhaps Toulouse-Lautrec, who came from the South, had mentioned it. Degas, who had never been there, had told him he was looking forward to painting the famous women of the place. But possibly it was just on a whim that Vincent came to Arles, liked what he saw and stayed. He told an acquaintance that he only wanted to interrupt his journey in Arles for a short time, but he became fascinated by the possibilities of the area.

"The landscape was calculated to appeal to the eye of a Dutchman . . . The very flatness of this landscape appealed to Vincent . . . Gauguin, however, had no fond memories of low country."

Nevertheless, Gauguin made the journey to Arles, arriving at 2 Place Lamartine with its "yellow walls and green-painted wordwork, and knocked on the door. It was opened by Vincent van Gogh."

Not all was easy at first. "The two men were a little disconcerted by each other. Both had built up their expectations, based on the evidence of recent paintings. …

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