- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 6, 2007

THE YELLOW HOUSE:VAN GOGH, GAUGUIN, AND NINE TURBULENT WEEKS IN ARLES

By Martin Gayford

Little Brown, $24.99, 339 pages, illus.

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.” Nevertheless before long they began to do “what Vincent had always hoped for: work side by side, a few yards apart, on parallel subjects.”

In a succession of projects including the painting of the autumn foliage of Arles the men could be seen trudging across town, “Vincent wearing his paint-daubed working clothes and straw hat, and festooned with his working equipment, Gauguin dressed as a Breton sailor. They carried their portable easels, boxes of paints, brushes, and primed canvases across town to the other side of Arles.”

Vincent would paint over 200 paintings in a single year at Arles. Many of his sunflower paintings hung on the wall of Gauguin’s room. But during this time, through the help of Vincent’s brother Theo and others, the business of selling their art was of utmost concern. In this, Gauguin was the first to get ahead. Moreover, as Mr. Gayford writes, “As Gauguin’s star rose, Vincent’s spirits plunged.”

Already it was clear that the two men were very different indeed. Vincent was small, withdrawn, inclined to drink too much and given to erratic behavior. Though they seemed to undertake merrily a wide spectrum of domestic chores — keeping a budget, shopping for food and cooking, too — Gauguin later recalled a disturbing habit Vincent developed:

“In the latter days of my stay, Vincent would become excessively rough and noisy, and then silent. On several nights I surprised him in the act of getting up and coming over to my bed. To what can I attribute my awakening at just that moment? At all events, it was enough for me to say, quite sternly, ‘What’s the matter with you Vincent?’ for him to go back to bed and fall into a heavy sleep.”

Before long and in spite of the remarkable paintings that were crafted during that extraordinary time — Gauguin’s “Madame Ginoux” and “Les Alyscamps,” Vincent’s “Sunflowers” and “Night Cafe” among others — the central drama between them as Mr. Wayford suggests was of Vincent’s increasing madness. After a night of drinking an indeterminate amount of absinthe and (possibly) producing a knife, (accounts of the knife are sketchy), Gauguin moved out. And on that same night, there is no disagreement that Vincent took the knife to his own ear. Two years later, at the age of 37, he would die from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Mr. Gayford treats the subject of Vincent’s madness with great care though, to be frank, his zeal to put forward an armchair diagnosis of bipolar disorder, however accurate, seems a bit out of place here. Nevertheless, Mr. Gayford’s sensitivity to Vincent’s plight and his depiction of this brief moment in time when two masters’ lives and gifts intersected in unlikely ways is a remarkable achievement and, throughout, a reading pleasure.

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