Magazine article The Spectator

Scraps of Van Goghiana

Magazine article The Spectator

Scraps of Van Goghiana

Article excerpt

Having spent a chunk of my life living, mentally, in 1888 with Vincent van Gogh in Arles I find that I still have not completely left that place. The book is published, the paperback is out, my surrogate literary life is in another country and a different time -- with John Constable and his wife-to-be in early 19thcentury England. But still I find my attention sometimes wandering back to his little Yellow House in that dusty Provençal town.

Here, then, are two little addenda to the story, scraps of Van Goghiana that have occurred to me since the text was finally proofread and published. One concerns the only meal that, according to the historical record, Vincent ever cooked. The other is an intriguing footnote to the picture that -- it seems -- they quarrelled about: Gauguin's eerie portrait of Van Gogh, 'the painter of sunflowers'.

Let's take the food first. According to Gauguin's not entirely reliable memoir of his ill-fated sojourn with Vincent (23 October to 25 December), it was he, Gauguin, who did the cooking, on a gas stove in their kitchen, while Van Gogh did the shopping. But once, Gauguin relates, 'Vincent wanted to make a soup. How he mixed it, I don't know; as he mixed his colours in his pictures, I dare say. At any rate, we couldn't eat it. And Vincent burst out laughing and exclaimed: "Tarascon! La casquette au père Daudet!" ' This wild remark -- which may have struck Gauguin as simply crazy -- was a reference to one of Van Gogh's favourite books, Tartarin de Tarascon by Alphonse Daudet.

This described the farcical adventures of the boastful Tartarin and his happy-golucky fellow citizens. One of their quirks was, having exterminated live game in the vicinity, to hunt their headgear. Each threw his cap in the air, and the winner was the one who shot his own casquette fullest of holes. This book made Vincent laugh; he liked it so much it actually seems to have been one of the reasons for his coming to Provence, and settling in Arles -- just down the road from Tarascon. He felt -- wrongly -- that his own quixotic eccentricities would blend into this amiably crack-brained area.

It was one of my regrets about the book that I could find no menus from the Yellow House. It would have been fascinating, though of little art-historical significance, to discover what they ate. But afterwards, leafing through Tartarin one day, I realised that there is a recipe in the book. Tartarin decides to hunt lions in Africa. Before setting out, to go into training, he puts himself on a Spartan diet of water soup. 'The water soup of Tarascon, ' Daudet relates, 'is a few slices of bread drowned in hot water, with a clove of garlic, a pinch of thyme and a sprig of bay leaves.' Could this have been Vincent's inedible broth? If so, it would make more sense of his strange remark, and it would have been just like him to select a dish at once so literary and so austere. It certainly sounds nasty.

The other post-publication conjecture concerns Gauguin's portrait of Van Gogh.

This seems to have been painted in the first week and a half of December. As Gauguin recalled, he had decided to paint a picture of Vincent painting his most celebrated still-life subject, sunflowers. 'When the portrait was finished, he said to me, "It is certainly me, but it's me gone mad". …

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