Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Sheltered in place with Van Gogh and Gauguin

By DAVID A. KING., Ph.D. | Published July 14, 2020

Allison, Graham, and Nicholas. They are the three people I love most in the world, my wife and sons. They give me affection and affirmation unlike any other people I know.

They can also drive me completely insane, and I know that I can do the same to them. We’re family.

For more than 100 days now in the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve all been together at home, seldom parting from one another’s company. It’s difficult living with the same people day after day in isolation from the rest of the world, with familiar routines interrupted, and privacy and solitude made nearly impossible. 

We live in a 1920s bungalow. If you walk in the front door of the house, you can see all the way to the back. You know where you’re going when you walk in, and upon arriving, you can look back and see where you came from. This sort of coziness certainly encourages closeness among family; it can also create tension. 

But we all love each other dearly. We’ll be fine.

It wasn’t quite as simple for the painters Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, who for a turbulent three months in 1888 shared a small house in Arles, in the south of France. It was Vincent’s idea. He found a house—“The Yellow House”—and imagined that it would make the perfect headquarters for himself and the new breed of proto-modern painters who would come to be known collectively as the Post-Impressionists. The house would be the center of an artistic utopia, where painters could come and go, sharing their ideas and insights, critiquing one another’s work, and encouraging each other in their advancements.

Paul Gauguin decided to give it a try. In October of 1888, he arrived in Arles from Brittany. He received a warm welcome from Vincent, who had carefully tidied and decorated the Yellow House, and as a special gift for Paul, he painted a series of canvases—now universally known—based on a sunflower motif.

The two painters could not have been more different. Vincent was Protestant; he had at one time served in the Dutch ministry and had practiced a severe religious fanaticism. Paul was Catholic, lapsed, but still fascinated by the essential spirit of inquiry and mystery at the heart of the faith. Vincent was slovenly, careless, sloppy; Paul was organized and clean. Vincent was wildly passionate; Paul maintained a coolness that underscored the mysterious aura he had fashioned about himself. The relationship was doomed from the beginning. 

The two painters bickered and fought, especially when they were confined indoors during the mistral that swept southern France in the Autumn. Though the studio they built in the Yellow House was filled with light, the simmering conflict between the two artists often made it seem gloomy and cold. Their bedrooms were right across the hall from each other; it might well have been a chasm.

When they could paint outside, which Vincent preferred, Paul had difficulty tolerating both the weather and the odd hours that Vincent worked. In the evenings, they drank in the local cafes and taverns, often to the point of drunkenness that ended in violent arguments. All this culminated in the infamous episode that ended with Vincent slicing off a piece of his ear. In the center of this turmoil was Vincent’s brother, Theo, with whom both Vincent and Paul kept up a steady correspondence. Theo bore this patiently, and sent money to Provence, oftentimes money that had been earned from the sale of Gauguin’s paintings at Theo’s gallery in Paris. This must have been especially humiliating for Vincent, who could sell nothing. 

And yet perhaps because of the personal and economic tension under which they were living, each man painted some of his finest work, canvases that today are recognized as masterworks of early modern art.

The paintings Vincent made during his time with Paul at the Yellow House are incredible. Consider just a few: “The Sunflowers,” “Van Gogh’s Bedroom,” “The Night Café,” “Café Terrace at Night,” “The Sower,” “Van Gogh’s Chair,” “The Roulin Portraits,” and his own self-portraits. Shortly after Gauguin’s departure, he painted his famous “The Starry Night,” perhaps his best-known work. 

Before arriving in Arles, Gauguin had completed his own masterpiece, “Vision of the Sermon,” which depicts Jacob wrestling with the angel. While in Arles, he painted some of his best portraits, as well as work which accomplished his greatest aim in painting: capturing abstract mystery and emotion rather than pure subject matter. This is evident in his works “Human Miseries,” “Washerwomen,” and “Painter of Sunflowers.” And, like Vincent, his self-portraits from this period are striking.

Painting their hearts out

In short, each man was at his very best in terms of his art.  Perhaps because of competition, perhaps because of frustration, Vincent and Paul painted their hearts out. We read a lot now about various approaches to therapy and mental health, art therapy among them. The theory is that painting can alleviate stress and calm anxiety. Was this the case for Gauguin and Vincent, one of whom approached his canvas like the abyss and the other who literally attacked it?  I doubt it.

In my column last month, I referenced a lesson Gauguin had remembered from his Catholic catechism: “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” Though each painter approached these questions in his own unique way, I do believe that in their art they each asked the questions.

If you are interested in learning more about the time that Vincent and Gauguin spent together in Arles, then there are two works that are essential.

The first is the wonderful 1956 film “Lust for Life.” Based on the novel by Irving Stone and directed by Vincente Minnelli, the film really belongs to Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn, whose portrayals of Vincent and Paul are remarkable. Quinn won an Academy Award for his role as Gauguin, and Douglas’ Vincent is one of his most famous performances. The film features outstanding photographs of actual Van Gogh canvases, as well as careful reproductions. It’s one of the best movies about art and artists I have seen.

The second is Martin Gayford’s excellent book “The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Provence.” Published in 2006, the book is a meticulously researched yet compelling narrative of this landmark 1888 autumn. Not only does Gayford consider the pictures carefully, he also considers the complicated personality and human foibles of each painter. The book makes particularly good reading in our current context, because it can be read slowly and carefully in episodic bits.

There is one episode that I find especially touching in the context of our own times. Gayford describes a December outing, near the end of Vincent and Gauguin’s time together, when the artists took a rare day off from their own work, and made a trip to the Musee Fabre in Montpellier, about 40 miles away from Arles. The trip took the entire day, but what a day it must have been. Imagine two of the greatest modern European painters, strolling through a museum together, both admiring and arguing about the pictures on exhibition. Imagine Vincent and Paul, liberated from the difficulty of their own work and their own bickering, sharing the simple pleasure of a trip to the museum.

The following week, at Christmas, the two men split for good. Though they never saw each other again, their short self-imposed isolation at the Yellow House remains fascinating to anyone interested in both art and the behavior of people who find themselves in difficult circumstances.

David A. King, Ph.D., is professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and director of RCIA at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.