Vincent van Gogh’s favorite color was yellow; Paul Gauguin’s was red. It was not a trivial difference. It pertains to the clashing, deeply complementary temperaments of two painters whose idiosyncrasies, inseparable from their talents and ideas, became keynotes of modern art and templates of artistic personality. Little about either man fails to fascinate. Both came late to art: Gauguin, the elder by five years, after fitful success as a sailor, financial trader, and family man—he met Impressionist painters first as a collector of their work, then as a protégé—and van Gogh after failures as an art dealer’s assistant and a Protestant preacher. Gauguin was short but carried himself with a swagger. Van Gogh was termed by an observer “a rather weedy little man.” Van Gogh admired Gauguin. That made two of them. While he liked van Gogh’s work well enough, Gauguin’s self-centered ambition made any appreciation of colleagues somewhat perfunctory. Van Gogh was an enthusiast for many kinds of art, including Barbizon landscape and a good deal of saloniste academic painting. He disliked, as “almost timid,” the tight little brushstrokes of the era’s most advanced painter, Paul Cézanne. Gauguin’s taste was trendy, with penchants for the medieval and the exotic. He swore by Cézanne. Both van Gogh and Gauguin revered Edgar Degas and—van Gogh, especially—Japanese art. Van Gogh painted almost exclusively from life; Gauguin favored imagination. Van Gogh was innocent and disturbed, Gauguin savvy and louche. In October of 1888, Gauguin left the art colony of Pont-Aven, in Brittany, where he was the leading light, to stay in isolation with van Gogh in the humdrum town of Arles, in Provence. It was a dramatic sojourn.
“The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles” (Little, Brown; $24.99), by Martin Gayford, the chief art critic of Bloomberg Europe, is a skillfully ordered collection of informative and entertaining nuggets of intellectual and personal biography. The book’s subtitle, however, is over the top. I count just two really turbulent nights in the story, and a few sticky days. Weeks passed in uneventful amity, or at least forbearance. The climax is sensational, of course: van Gogh razors off all or part of his left ear (the forensic detail is lost to history) and ceremoniously presents it to a prostitute named Rachel. She faints. He is hospitalized. Gauguin flees. The peculiar horror of the episode, in tension with the majesty of van Gogh’s art at the time, has made it irresistibly mythological. As a symbol of a supposed kinship of genius and madness, it resonates backward in time to the Greeks and forward to the thoughts of anyone who has wondered at the vagaries of creativity. In an extended anticlimax, Gayford hazards ingenious speculations about van Gogh’s febrile thought process (why an ear?) and proposes, for what it’s worth, a likely clinical diagnosis: bipolar affective disorder. But, in the way of myth, the event’s operative meanings exceed analysis and spurn explanation. They have a life of their own, like art.
“A time will come when people will think I am a myth, or rather something the newspapers have made up,” Gauguin wrote in 1897, in a letter from Tahiti. He was a driven self-inventor, ever conscious of his theatrical effect. Born in Paris, he spent his childhood in Lima, Peru, where his mother had family, and in Orléans, France. He went to sea in 1865, at the age of seventeen, and spent six years in the French merchant marine and Navy. Alighting in Paris, he took undemanding, lucrative jobs in finance, and married a Danish woman, Mette Sophie Gad, whom he bullied psychologically and, perhaps, physically. They had five children. Drawing and carving were hobbies for him. He began to buy art, first by Camille Pissarro and then by other Impressionists and Cézanne. The gentle anarchist Pissarro took an interest in the newcomer and effectively guided him for several years. (He eventually turned against him as a careerist.) Édouard Manet and Degas encouraged Gauguin to pursue his work, and, with little academic training, he became the first major artist formed in the ambit of what was not yet called the avant-garde.
After a stock-market crash in 1882, Gauguin launched himself as a painter. The family moved to Copenhagen, where Mette threw him out. Back in France, he became a leader in reactions against both Impressionism and naturalism, promoting symbolic expression and, in a prescient word he often used, “abstraction.” Amid the motley bohemian artists of Pont-Aven, he was influenced by the bold innovations, with black-outlined flat hues, of a much younger painter and theorist, Émile Bernard, who was a friend of van Gogh and, crucially, of his younger brother, the adventurous Paris dealer Theo van Gogh. Gauguin promptly trumped Bernard’s art with a painting made in the summer of 1888, “The Vision After the Sermon,” which charged their common style with sulfurous content: a man wrestles with an angel, watched by solemn Breton women. He then proceeded to make the most of Bernard’s connection with the van Gogh brothers.
Van Gogh was born in 1853, in Zundert, in the Netherlands, the son of a cultured clergyman and a mother who seems to have despaired of him. (She stored some of his works, and forgot about them.) He grew up religious and hypersensitive, a difficult companion and chronically maladroit in everyday matters. For seven years, from the age of sixteen, he worked for an international art firm in The Hague, London, and Paris, where he was fired for lack of initiative. He was briefly a schoolteacher in England. Rejected in attempts at romance, he had doomed affairs with demimondaines; for a time, he lived with a Dutch prostitute who had two children, gaining a taste of domestic happiness that haunted him ever after. Van Gogh came to rely on prostitutes—“little good women,” in his words—but he advised Bernard in a letter, “Don’t fuck too much. Your paintings will be all the more spermatic.” He became a lay preacher to miners in a desolate part of Belgium but was dismissed for overzealousness and general oddity. (“Children threw things at him as he walked down the street,” Gayford recounts; van Gogh suffered similar harassment in Arles.) As he gave himself over to painting, at the age of twenty-six, he invested his faltering religious faith in literature. Gayford writes, “In Vincent’s mind, modern novels, with their close descriptions of modern life, love, suffering and labor, were more than a substitute for the Bible—they were its successor. He felt that Christ himself would agree with him on that point.” He experienced the characters and events in Zola and Flaubert as virtual realities. (He wrote to Theo that a family friend reminded him of “the first Mrs. Bovary,” who barely appears in the novel.) He read Dickens and George Eliot in English. He was a luminous writer himself, in his letters, with flashes of rueful clarity about his mental condition: “I have moments when I am twisted with enthusiasm or madness or prophecy, like a Greek oracle on his tripod.”
Starting in 1886, van Gogh spent two years in Paris, living with Theo—to the latter’s exasperation and anguish. “All I hope is that he will go and live by himself, and he has talked about this for a long time, but if I told him to leave that would only give him a reason to stay on,” Theo wrote. “It appears as if there are two different beings in him, the one marvelously gifted, fine and delicate, the other selfish and heartless.” (In van Gogh’s final months, his mother wished for an end to the family’s burden, praying, she wrote to Theo, “Take him, Lord.”) At times funny and charming, and admiring of friends, including Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, van Gogh taxed his fellows in the art world by being, in Gayford’s summary, “compulsively articulate, opinionated and tactless.” One of them recalled, “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.” At last, van Gogh’s suffering sent him south in February, 1888, at the age of thirty-four—“looking for a different light,” he later told Theo, and believing “that observing nature under a brighter sky might give one a more accurate idea of the way the Japanese feel and draw.” He envisioned founding a “studio of the South” and dunned Gauguin, whom he had met in Paris, and Bernard with invitations to join him. In a little over a year in Arles, he made about two hundred paintings, dozens of them masterpieces. Why was he unrecognized at the time? Personality aside, his style of impasto brushwork (much inspired by an eccentric Marseilles painter, Adolphe Monticelli) in service to visual truth was out of step both with Paris fashion, whose new hero was the methodical Georges Seurat, and with nascent, waking-dream Symbolism, pioneered by Gauguin. Though van Gogh had spells of quiet confidence, he felt, to the last, that his art’s fruition lay years in the future.
The two artists exchanged self-portraits before Gauguin’s visit. Van Gogh’s depicts him as an austere, enigmatic character with eyes like a cat’s—as he put it, “a simple” Japanese monk “worshipping the eternal Buddha.” He described the work to Gauguin as “all ash-gray”—a cumulative, simmering effect, according to Gayford, “of mixing emerald green and orange on a pale jade background, all harmonized with his reddish-brown clothes.” It is a far better picture than Gauguin’s devilish presentation of himself as Jean Valjean, of “Les Misérables.” (Gauguin wrote to van Gogh that it portrayed a man “strong and badly dressed,” with “a nobleness and gentleness hidden within. Passionate blood suffuses the face as it does a creature in rut.”) But the Gauguin has zest. It features a lively, off-center composition and begins to divorce line from color in a way that became Gauguin’s major contribution to modern painting, notably that of Picasso. The fact that both painters chose to render themselves in fictional guise—van Gogh was inspired by Pierre Loti’s popular novel “Madame Chrysanthème,” on which Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” was later based—supports Gayford’s thesis that for them, in their different ways, life and literature interlocked. The difference emerges in the artists’ preferred images: Gauguin’s is egotistical and sensual, while van Gogh’s is humble and spiritual. With characteristic generosity, van Gogh discerned rare dignity in Gauguin’s villainous persona. He called him, in a letter to Bernard, “a virgin creature with savage instincts. With Gauguin blood and sex prevail over ambition.”
Actually, ambition was very much involved in 1888, when, as Gayford writes breathlessly, “Paul Gauguin . . . knocked on the door. It was opened by Vincent van Gogh.” Gauguin had high hopes of doing business with Theo, who would have been grateful to anyone willing to keep his unnerving brother company, far from Paris. As it turned out, Theo sold several works by Gauguin during his time in Arles—“the dirtiest town in the whole south,” the artist decided—while failing to move any by his brother, whose depressions accordingly deepened. Their two-story quarters in Arles were half of a cockeyed butter-yellow house (a grocer occupied the rest) on a busy square. The inside walls were white, the doors blue, and the floors red tile. They had gaslight and running water, but the nearest toilet was in a hotel next door. Gayford guesses that the place smelled strongly of “pipe smoke as well as of turpentine, pigment and Vincent himself—the climate was hot and washing arrangements limited.” Gauguin, with a sailor’s habitual tidiness, was appalled by the messiness of the studio. He took the household in hand and, among other interventions, instituted a budget for the modest amounts of money provided by Theo, who always supported his brother: as Gauguin put it, “so much for hygienic excursions at night” to brothels, “so much for tobacco, so much for incidental expenses, including rent,” and so much, in a separate cache, for food. He did most of the cooking.
He was amazed, perhaps despite himself, by van Gogh’s decoration of the guest room: paintings, particularly two depicting sunflowers, of a size and intensity—and, in one case, yellowness—never before seen in still-life. But Gauguin never conceded that van Gogh had anything to teach him. (He later claimed, bizarrely, to have freed van Gogh from Seurat-like Pointillism and to have enabled his yellow-on-yellow breakthroughs. Gauguin’s memory was a chorus ever improvising songs in praise of himself.) Rather, he urged the younger artist to work, as he did, “de tête”: from mental images, by invented design. Van Gogh tried, with scant success—except for one later painting that he made in the mental asylum at Saint-Rémy, near Arles, “The Starry Night,” which he soon regretted, as “another failure” caused by being “led astray into abstraction.”
The two worked hard. They sketched some of the same landscapes and shared portrait models, including the wife of one of van Gogh’s few Arles friends, the politically radical postman Joseph Roulin. (Van Gogh gushed to Theo that Roulin’s family consisted of “real characters and very French, though they look like Russians”; he seems to have planned to paint them continually over the years, as they changed with age.) Van Gogh’s output, which included the acrid and harrowing “Night Café,” was torrid. Gauguin’s style was in transition; a striking work of the period, “In the Heat,” of a half-naked peasant woman and pigs, amounts to a sumptuous dirty joke. A portrait he painted of van Gogh, “The Painter of Sunflowers,” is an animated, rather goofy caricature. Their conversation, when not marred by disagreements in art matters, was full of references to literature and the news. They were avid for crime stories, such as the latest exploits of Jack the Ripper, and closely followed the trial, in Paris, of a charismatic murderer named Prado. Gayford surmises that Prado’s speeches, in his own defense, struck a chord with van Gogh: “Who am I first of all? What does it matter? I am unfortunate. . . . My God, hurled on to this vast stage of human life, I yielded, a bit by chance, to everything I felt beat in my heart and boil in my brain.” (Prado was convicted; Gauguin attended his public execution.)
Gauguin’s habits at the time, except perhaps those involving sex, were moderate. Van Gogh drank ruinously. He explained, “If the storm within gets too loud, I take a glass too much to stun myself.” The effects were not entirely medicinal. According to Gauguin—whose testimony is often unreliable—he awakened “several nights,” toward the end of his stay, to find van Gogh standing over him, whereupon “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.” (No other evidence hints at homosexual attraction—at any rate, a tendency more thinkable about Gauguin, who was given to fiercely dominating relations with other men.) Gauguin reported that, upon viewing “The Painter of Sunflowers,” van Gogh said, “It’s me, but it’s me gone mad,” and afterward, in a café, threw a glass of absinthe at Gauguin’s head. Still, Gauguin stayed. He wanted to go, Gayford recounts, but he wrote to a friend that he meant to do it “in such a way that Theo would be ‘bound’ to him” and so keep selling his work. The pair travelled forty-two miles to a museum in Montpellier, where paintings by Delacroix and Courbet excited them. But the end was near.
On December 23rd, as Gauguin recalled a few days later in a letter to Bernard, van Gogh asked him if he was going to leave. “And when I said ‘Yes’ he tore this sentence from a newspaper and put it in my hand: ‘the murderer took flight.’ ” That evening, after the usually pacific van Gogh threatened Gauguin with his razor (or so Gauguin claimed), Gauguin spent the night in a hotel. The next morning, he went in dread to the Yellow House, where a crowd, alerted by Rachel, had gathered. In Gauguin’s telling, no one had yet entered the house. He went in with the Arles police commissioner, who asked him, “What have you done to your comrade, Monsieur?” The stairway was splattered with blood. They found van Gogh curled up in bed, motionless. Gauguin told Bernard that he “touched the body, the heat of which showed that it was still alive.” He left for Paris shortly afterward, apparently without seeing van Gogh awake, or ever again. Van Gogh was in the hospital for two weeks, then he passed eighteen torrentially productive months, between recurrent breakdowns, first at the Yellow House, until neighbors, complaining that “his instability frightens all the inhabitants,” petitioned for his removal; then a year at the asylum in Saint-Rémy; and, finally, under the care of the compassionate Dr. Paul Gachet, in the village of Auvers-sur-Oise, north of Paris. Absorbed in his work, van Gogh was flattered but unsettled by an admiring essay by the critic Albert Aurier, to whom he protested that his role in art was “of very secondary importance” to that of Gauguin or Adolphe Monticelli. One of van Gogh’s paintings sold, for a good price. But turmoil in Theo’s business life and his mental state—he was beginning to suffer from tertiary syphilis—made Vincent fear the loss of his allowance. On July 27, 1890, he shot himself in the chest; he survived for two days. Theo died six months later. Gauguin died in 1903, in the Marquesas Islands, also of complications from syphilis, just as he was about to begin a jail sentence for insulting local authorities.
Gayford analyzes van Gogh’s self-mutilation rather as if it were an art work, in a style that was influenced not only by Jack the Ripper, who cut off a prostitute’s ear, but also by at least two texts: Zola’s novel “The Sin of Father Mouret,” in which a friar chastises an altar boy, named Vincent, by pulling his ear, and later has his own ear lopped off by an assailant; and the Bible, where the disciple Peter slices off the ear of one of the men who have come to arrest Jesus at Gethsemane. Gayford piles on the evidence, making his case plausible to a degree (for instance, van Gogh had tried to do a painting on the theme of Gethsemane), but the effort begs the question of why van Gogh’s hysterical self-blame took a gruesome turn when his friendship with Gauguin collapsed. For that, the psychiatric label of bipolarity will serve both as well as and as badly as such previous conjectures, enumerated by Gayford, as “an overdose of digitalis, lead poisoning (from paint), absinthe-induced hallucinations, a condition of the inner ear named Ménière’s disease, severe sunstroke and glaucoma,” not to mention “schizophrenia, syphilis, epilepsy, acute intermittent porphyria”—George III’s probable malady—“and borderline personality disorder.”
The painting on van Gogh’s easel on the night of his self-mutilation, which he finished a few weeks later, was “La Berceuse,” a rousingly colored portrait of Joseph Roulin’s wife, Augustine, sitting calmly in a chair, holding a string that she uses to rock her baby’s cradle. Gayford describes the wallpaper behind her: “Huge white blossoms—dahlias, according to Vincent—sway on long thin stalks, tendrils and leaves twine against a background of thousands of small blue-green forms, each with a red dot in the middle, like a bud, or a pod, or a breast.” He writes that van Gogh “compared the picture with a cheap religious print” while intending it, in the artist’s words, “to achieve in painting what the music of Berlioz and Wagner has already done . . . an art that offers consolation for the broken-hearted!” Fired by Pierre Loti’s book “An Iceland Fisherman,” van Gogh imagined the painting hanging in the cabin of a boat, he wrote to Gauguin, where, on account of it, endangered and lonely fishermen “would feel the old sense of being rocked come over them and remember their own lullabies.” Gayford goes on to adduce still other literary, artistic, and religious sources of inspiration for the work. None of that comes across in the painting, though it is consistent with the subject’s oddly combined airs of looming mass and serene stillness. The work communicates mastery, revelling in itself.
Creativity takes what it needs from the person who possesses it, or is possessed by it, and discards the rest. In van Gogh’s case, two realities—that of what he saw and that of what he used (paint, line, color)—laid imperious claim to his energies. The disciplined, mutual fulfillment of subject and medium transcended whatever he thought or felt while conceiving and executing his work. Something similar can be said of any great artist, though rarely with so jolting a sense of psychological odds overcome. Van Gogh became a hero of modern culture for demonstrating “grace under pressure” to a dizzying extreme. Gayford notes that “La Berceuse” thrilled Henri Matisse, Pierre Bonnard, and Édouard Vuillard, not with any extractable meaning but with form “which made a whole world of its own.” In an important way, that world excludes its maker, who, at the time, happened to be crazy. Here we come to a classic controversy. If dosed with the proper mood-stabilizing drug in 1888, would van Gogh have become, as Gayford ventures, “a different—and probably a duller—artist”? Given that van Gogh was never dull, I think it would have been worth the risk.
It is hard not to judge Gauguin harshly, in comparison with van Gogh; there’s a meanness about him. But keep in mind that Gauguin sought disapproval: the dynamism of his character and the intelligence of his style, organized by an antinomian urge to shock, proved more crucial to the ethos of avant-gardism than van Gogh’s genius did. Picasso spoke astutely, in 1935, of “the torments of van Gogh” and “Cézanne’s anxiety” as the engines of our interest in their work: “the drama of the man.” But when it came to active dramatizing, in the face of a projected, despised bourgeois society, Gauguin blazed a way for Picasso, his fellow artistic and sexual conquistador, and for every artist, to this day, who has adopted an attitude of renegade or subversive temerity.
As a performance, Gayford’s book is quite in the raffish spirit of Gauguin, who comes off considerably better than in other tellings of the Arles saga. He jumps off the page, to the palpable gratification of an author who is adept at sparkling quotation (in his own translations from the French) and punchy narrative. Now and then, Gayford almost seems to share Gauguin’s irritation at van Gogh’s importunate neediness and passive-aggressive sulks. The bias proves salutary. It forestalls the sentimental self-congratulation with which we may dote on a victim of misunderstanding whose actual company we couldn’t have stood for an hour, let alone nine weeks. The book breaks no new ground as art history and criticism, but it provides a vivid snapshot of issues and passions at a key moment in the formation of modern sensibility. Imagine! A couple of disreputable men in a nowhere town slap paint on canvas and thereby change everything. It has been a long time now, half a century after Abstract Expressionism, since that scenario had its last echo in a real artistic or cultural development, except in tones of irony or elegy. No individual can any longer dandle the world at the end of a brush. The legend is correspondingly estranged and enhanced