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The Yellow HouseVan Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles
By Martin Gayford
LITTLE, BROWNCopyright © 2006 Martin Gayford
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Arrival October 23, 1888
While it was still dark, shortly after five o'clock in the morning, a train clanked into the station at Arles and a solitary, exhausted passenger got out. He had been traveling for nearly two days. His journey had begun the previous Sunday in Pont-Aven, near the Atlantic coast of Brittany, almost seven hundred miles away. Since then he had moved by stages from a damp, green region on the Atlantic coast to a flat plain near the point where the Rhône River met the Mediterranean.
The route had taken him right across France, via Nantes and Tours, Clermont Ferrand and Lyon. Although he was now in the sunny south, the night air was chilly-only 40ºF. He stepped out of the station, turned left and walked under the railway bridge, then along the street until he came to a large open square. On his right was the embankment of a wide river-the Rhône. To the left was the house he was heading for, its shutters still closed. But just at the junction of the street and the square there were signs of animation in an all-night café. He opened the door.
It was bright inside because of the lamps hanging from the ceiling. The walls were red, the floorboards bare. Around the sides of the room were tables topped with marble; in the center was a big billiard table;and at the back of the room a small bar covered with assorted bottles. On the wall above, over the entrance to an inner room, hung a handsome clock, still showing not much after five o'clock. The owner looked at the newcomer, then exclaimed, "You're the pal. I recognize you!"
The speaker, Joseph Ginoux, was proprietor of the café-a new establishment that had opened only at the beginning of the year. He was talking to an artist with some reputation in the circles of the avant-garde. Ginoux had identified him by means that-even in the 1880s-were old-fashioned. Earlier, he had been shown a painted portrait and been told to look out for its subject, who would soon be arriving.
Paul Gauguin settled down in the Café de la Gare to wait for dawn. When the sun finally rose, he went out, crossed over to number 2 Place Lamartine, whose yellow walls and green-painted woodwork could now be clearly seen, and knocked on the door. It was opened by Vincent van Gogh.
Gauguin's arrival was, it was safe to say, among the most exhilarating but also the most anxious moments of Vincent's life. No sooner had he signed the lease for the Yellow House, almost six months before, than Vincent had started to evolve a plan. He didn't want to live in the house alone; he desperately yearned for company. Right from the start, Gauguin had come to mind as the ideal companion. On that very day he had written to his younger brother, Theo, describing the house and floating a suggestion: "Perhaps Gauguin would come south?"
The notion rapidly grew into an obsession. From the end of May for the following five months, by letter, Vincent plotted, cajoled, argued, pleaded and insisted that Gauguin journey to Arles and join him. He persuaded Theo-who was already supporting Vincent himself-to offer the penurious painter a deal: free board and lodging in exchange for pictures provided he agreed to live in 2 Place Lamartine, the Yellow House. Theo was working as an art dealer in Paris-one of the few who supported experimental painting-so he was in a position to help Gauguin a great deal.
In reply, Gauguin accepted, then-time and again-postponed his departure. A correspondence developed between the two painters, far more intense than their actual, physical acquaintance in Paris the previous winter. Ideas were exchanged and adopted, new paintings described. Vincent was euphoric with the hope that Gauguin would soon appear and cast down by the fear that he would not.
Recently-since Gauguin's departure had definitely been announced-Vincent had been consumed by the anxiety that, when the other actually arrived, he would not think much of Arles. Gauguin, Vincent feared, would find the area unsatisfactory in comparison to Brittany. He might find the scenery lacking in the rich possibilities he had discovered in the north. Instead of joining in Vincent's project and offering his companionship, there was the tormenting possibility that Gauguin would be angry and disdainful. Vincent's nervous tension had reached such a point that he feared he would become ill. Some explosion threatened. And now here Gauguin was, actually at the door. He entered.
The two men were a little disconcerted by each other. Both had built up their expectations, based on the evidence of recent paintings. In advance of Gauguin's arrival, Vincent had proposed an exchange of portraits. Gauguin had dispatched one south-the picture that had been shown to the café owner, Ginoux-and Vincent had in turn sent a painting of himself north to Brittany. But those self-portraits were not simply evidence of how the two men actually looked or who they actually were. One was a forty-year-old Frenchman with an estranged family and a background in financial trading, the other a thirty-five-year-old Dutchman who had tried his hand at various tasks. Both had come to painting relatively late in life. But the pictures were indices of how Gauguin and Van Gogh imagined themselves. Each had presented his image in character, as a figure from literature. One thing they had in common was an intense fantasy life in which their own real lives merged with their reading.
In the corner of his picture, Gauguin had painted above his signature the words "Les Misérables"-a reference to the best-known of all French novels, Victor Hugo's masterpiece. This was an easy clue, as such things go. Gauguin meant to present himself as an artistic equivalent to the hero of that novel, Jean Valjean-convicted criminal, outcast, martyr and saint. Despite his having written the name of the novel on the picture, Gauguin still doubted whether all the nuances of his meaning would be understood.
So, ahead of the arrival of the portrait itself, Vincent had received a letter of explanation from Brittany in which Gauguin described the crucial aspects of the self-portrait: "The face of a bandit like Jean Valjean, strong and badly dressed, who has a nobleness and gentleness hidden within. Passionate blood suffuses the face as it does a creature in rut, and the eyes are enveloped by tones as red as the fire of a forge, which indicate the inspiration like molten lava which fills the soul of painters such as us."
The yellow wallpaper behind, with its bouquets of flowers, "like that of a young girl's bedroom," symbolized-he went on- "our artistic virginity." As he saw it, Jean Valjean-oppressed by society but full of love and power-was just like an Impressionist artist of the day.
And so, Gauguin concluded, in giving Valjean his own features, he was also painting a collective portrait of the tiny band of rebellious modern painters, who were poverty-stricken for the most part, victims of society. They remained artistically as pure as virgins and were victims who responded to suffering-in a Christlike manner-by doing good. They were creating the art of the future.
On reading Gauguin's description of his self-portrait, Vincent had concluded that the picture must be a masterpiece. But when it arrived he found it worryingly dark and sad. It was too close an echo of the anxious, harried feelings he had himself.
Vincent's self-portrait was even harder to decode. He had written no clue to its meaning on the canvas. He had simply presented his head and shoulders-his hair and beard unusually short-against a jade-green background. Of all the self-portraits he painted, this was the oddest.
Characteristically, when he described it to Gauguin, it was the color that came first to mind. "I have a portrait of myself, all ashgray," he had written three weeks before. This effect was the result of mixing emerald green and orange on a pale jade background, all harmonized with his reddish-brown clothes-a difficult combination for Vincent, which had given him trouble.
In the flesh of Vincent's neck and face, delicate strokes of light green and pale rose mingled with the ginger of his hair and its reflections. From a distance, these marks of the brush fused into a unity that vibrated with life. The touches of paint followed the contours of his face. And those features themselves were gaunt, the cheekbones strongly projecting.
An opalescent green seemed to radiate from the head, forming an icy halo. Vincent's eyes-yellow-brown, not blue-green as in his other portraits-were pulled up on either side in catlike fashion, brush strokes radiating around them like lines of magnetic force. Their look was elusive. Was it nervous? Or timid? Or determined? It was an enigmatic self-depiction, with a touch of the convict or some other kind of institutional inmate about it.
He signed it, as he always did those pictures with which he was particularly pleased, and those he presented as gifts, "Vincent"; the signature was later partially erased. Partly because no French tongue could negotiate his surname, and perhaps also partly because he felt disconnected from his pious, bourgeois Dutch family, he was always simply Vincent.
Few observers would have guessed the guise that the painter took on in this picture. Vincent had, he wrote to Gauguin, "aimed at the character of a simple bonze worshipping the eternal Buddha." That is, he had painted himself as a Japanese monk. No persona, on the face of it, might seem less probable for Vincent, an avant-garde Dutch painter living in the South of France. The idea had come from a book-then newly published and widely read- by the best-selling author Pierre Loti: Madame Chrysanthème. This book purported to be the memoirs of a French naval officer whose ship was temporarily stationed in Tokyo and who took a Japanese mistress in a purely financial arrangement. She became fond of him, and he almost developed a fondness for her; then he departed. The story was later to serve as the basis for Puccini's opera Madame Butterfly.
Buddhist monks were not the heroes of Madame Chrysanthème; they merely had walk-on parts. They appear in a procession and in a later visit to a monastery. The life of such a Buddhist monk, the book revealed, did not exclude a little indulgence. The monks were fond of French liqueurs, and pictures of women. But the essential message of Vincent's self-portrait was that the sitter was leading a calm contemplative life. He was a member of a spiritual order, under the discipline of a superior.
This was the reverse of the solitary existence that Van Gogh had been experiencing in Arles; it was more the expression of a hope: the Yellow House was to be a miniature monastic community dedicated to producing the art of the future. In this monastery there had to be an abbot-to "keep order," as Vincent put it-and that would naturally be Gauguin, with Vincent his humble adherent. But in reality, Vincent was not at all the tranquil being he depicted. On the contrary, he was often disquietingly worked up.
On actually seeing Gauguin, Vincent was surprised to find that his guest was much healthier-looking than he had anticipated. The portrait inscribed "Les Misérables" had created the image of desperation, as had constant complaints in Gauguin's letters about a debilitating disease-probably dysentery-that he had picked up the year before while painting in Martinique. But Gauguin seemed finally to have shaken that off.
The impression Gauguin generally made on people was of contained power, both bodily and psychological. Physically, both Gauguin and Van Gogh were small, even by the standards of nineteenth-century France. The French navy, in which he had once served, recorded Gauguin's height as a little over five feet four inches, but he thought of himself as long-legged and tall. Archibald Standish Hartrick, a Scot who encountered him in Brittany, thought Gauguin "a fine figure of a man."
Vincent made the opposite impression. At home in Holland he had been called, mockingly, "het schildermanneke" or "the little painter." A Dutch neighbor remembered him as "squarely built," but that was not how most others recalled Vincent over subsequent years. Hartrick considered him "a rather weedy little man, with pinched features." One of the staff at the hospital at Arles, Dr. Félix Rey, found him a yet more unimpressive specimen-"miserable, wretched ... short and thin."
Although Gauguin was inclined to impress on an initial meeting, not everybody liked him on closer acquaintance. Many in the small coterie of advanced Parisian painters were suspicious, even hostile. Camille Pissarro, for instance, who had at one stage taken Gauguin under his wing, came to think of him as a thief of other artists' ideas, and the young painter Paul Sérusier felt there was something dubious about him, a touch of playacting and also of ruthlessness. "He made you think of a buffoon, a troubadour, and a pirate all at once."
Gauguin's manner was measured. His voice was somber and husky. He had, a writer named Charles Morice noted, "a large, bony, solid face with a narrow forehead." His mouth was straight and thin-lipped, and he had "heavy eye-lids that opened lazily over slightly bulging, bluish eyes that rotated in their sockets to look to the left and right almost without the body or the head having to take the trouble to move."
Vincent, in contrast, was prone to disturbingly fast and jerky movements. Hartrick remembered:
He had an extraordinary way of pouring out sentences, if he got started, in Dutch, English and French, then glancing back at you over his shoulder, and hissing through his teeth. In fact, when thus excited, he looked more than a little mad; at other times, he was inclined to be morose, as if suspicious.
Hartrick and his cronies thought him "cracked" but harmless, perhaps not interesting enough to bother much about.
But some saw redeeming inner qualities in Vincent when they got to know him better. He had found a few friends in Arles that year-a soldier, a postal worker and three other painters. But sometimes he went for days without speaking to anyone, and there were painful persecutions by the local youths that he did not confess, even to his brother Theo.
Years later, Monsieur Jullian-by then the respectable librarian of Arles-felt guilt for the way he and his teenage friends had treated Vincent. They would shout abuse at him as he went past, "alone and silent, in his long smock and wearing one of those cheap straw hats you could buy everywhere." Vincent had decorated his hat with ribbons, "sometimes blue, sometimes yellow." This touching mark of his faith in color was bound to provoke the local youths. Vincent's habit of "continually stopping and peering at things"-natural in a painter-excited the ridicule of his tormenters:
I remember, and I am bitterly ashamed of it now, how I threw cabbage stalks at him! What do you expect? We were young, and he was odd, going out to paint in the country, his pipe between his teeth, his big body a bit hunched, a mad look in his eye. He always looked as if he were running away, without daring to look at anyone.
Vincent caused no disturbance, M. Jullian recalled, "except when he had been drinking, which happened often." Looking back, the librarian saw that he was "really a gentle person, a creature who would probably have liked us to like him, and we left him in his terrifying isolation, the terrible loneliness of genius."
Adding to Vincent's general air of eccentric vagrancy was his lack of teeth, ten of them having been extracted in Paris eighteen months before and replaced by false ones. Years of rough living had left him looking older than his thirty-five years. (His birthday, on March 30, had fallen that year a month after he arrived in Arles.)
Gauguin, too, had had his share of sufferings, including neardestitution at times in the previous few years, and his draining tropical disease. But they had not yet destroyed his air of dynamism and strength. Few considered Gauguin other than formidable. No one seems to have thought the same of Vincent. His brother Theo was perhaps the only person who believed he might become a significant painter.
Vincent had been accepted as a colleague and a friend in Paris before he left for Arles by such promising younger artists as Paul Signac, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Emile Bernard. But there was no hint that any of them thought he had the potential for greatness.
Indeed, on October 23, 1888, neither Gauguin nor Vincent had large reputations in the world of art. They were both members of a loose coterie of experimental, mainly youthful painters based in and around Paris. This group was the forerunner of what came to be called the avant-garde (though that term was not yet used). These new artists no longer formed a single school, as a critic noted a few years later. They reminded him of the geometric patterns of a kaleidoscope, now fusing, now flying apart, but all revolving within "the circle of the new art." They were searching for something beyond Impressionism, the dominant radical movement of the older generation. The Impressionists themselves- Monet, Renoir, Pissarro-were now in their late forties and fifties.
Excerpted from The Yellow House by Martin Gayford Copyright © 2006 by Martin Gayford. Excerpted by permission.
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