52020Jul

The Yellow House

The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Provence by Martin Gayford. Houghton-Mifflin, 2008.

The Yellow House by Martin Gayford

They were the Odd Couple of the art world. For nine weeks in the fall of 1888 Paul Gauguin lived with Vincent Van Gogh in the south of France. It was a tumultuous time that saw Van Gogh produce some of his most acclaimed paintings and sever his own ear.

The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Provence by Martin Gayford chronicles this period and its impact on the two men and the art world.

The cohabitation was Van Gogh’s idea. He envisioned creating an artists’ studio, where resources would be pooled and concepts shared. He decided on Arles, which was a working-class town and hardly an artists’ enclave. Vincent rented a small house on the main road, painted it a bright yellow and spent the summer petitioning Gauguin to move south. The two men had the same art dealer in Paris, Van Gogh’s brother Theo. Eventually Gauguin was persuaded by the lure of Provencal sunshine and inexpensive living.

When he moved in, Gauguin was just beginning to make a name for himself in the Parisian art world. Van Gogh, however, was barely on the radar. He subsisted largely through the generosity of his brother. He also had a sister, Wil, who he was very close to, but by this point in his life he had managed to alienate virtually everyone else.

Gauguin was forty at the time, five years older than Vincent. He had a wife and five children whom he abandoned in Copenhagen, Denmark and had just come from living in an artists’ colony in Brittany.

The venture began brightly. The two men pooled their money and created a budget for food, art supplies and brothel visits. Gauguin cooked at home to save money. The two stalked the countryside, easels in hand. They painted fields, graveyards, parks and the brothels and cafes they visited. Van Gogh invited the family of Joseph Roulin, the local postmaster whom he befriended, for individual sittings. He painted two portraits of each family member and paid them in artwork.

Gauguin’s works began selling back in Paris and he slowly accrued the funds needed to start his own art colony on the Caribbean island of Martinique. Van Gogh supported his friend’s endeavor, but also feared being alone again.

As the weather turned cold and gloomy outside, so did the atmosphere in the yellow house. Gauguin felt claustrophobic in the little house and painted out in the cold. Vincent began to mentally unravel. He bounced between manic highs and crushing depression. He railed in long, repetitive diatribes, eventually repelling his housemate.

Gayford gives detailed explanations of Gauguin’s and Van Gogh’s works, but enjoying this book does not require an Art-History degree. He does not get bogged down in esoteric critiques, but recounts a time when two of the most influential artists collided like meteors before bouncing off each other into new realms.

James Downes is the Public Services Manager at the Mebane Public Library. He can be reached at jdownes@alamancelibraries.org.