The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks In Arles

By Nina L.

We know them today as giants of art history, but in 1888 French artist Paul Gauguin had an estranged family, a background in financial trading, and limited artistic success. Vincent Van Gogh, a 35-year-old Dutchman, had failed miserably at several vocations before turning to art with the encouragement and financial support of his brother Theo.

The Yellow House, Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles, by Martin Gayford, is an intimate and revelatory look at a time when Van Gogh and Gauguin lived together in a self-styled artist’s colony of two. They were an odd pair, full of contrasts – Gauguin cerebral, Van Gogh emotional, but both drawn to the idea of inventing a new art of the future. The book follows the events as they unfold day-to-day with granular detail.  Drawing on the copious letters of both artists, Gayford makes it easy to imagine being in the house looking on as the two men worked in the small, cramped, ten-foot wide studio filled with the heavy atmosphere of tobacco and turpentine.  

While living in Paris, Van Gogh dreamed of starting an artist’s colony in the south of France. He settled on Arles, a provincial town on the way to the Mediterranean coast. Both he and Theo admired Gauguin, enticing him to Arles with the offer of free room and board in exchange for his paintings.  Van Gogh, who later became the greater artist of the two, regarded Gauguin as a mentor and had high expectations of living and working together. In anxious anticipation of Gauguin’s arrival, he set about transforming the little yellow house, carefully choosing furnishings, brightening the exterior and interior with paint, and hanging his art work throughout the house, including his newly created Sunflowers. The first few weeks went well, with exchanges of ideas and daily painting trips to the surrounding countryside, but when the weather turned cold and rainy, spending all day in the small, cramped space didn’t bode well for the two large personalities.

By late December of 1888 the relationship was fraying and Gauguin considered returning to Paris. On December 23rd, while feverishly working on a painting, Van Gogh suffered a mental attack and cut off part of his ear with a razor. He then wrapped the ear in newspaper and took it to a local brothel with instructions to give it to one of the women. Gauguin, alarmed at Van Gogh’s deteriorating state, had spent the night in a hotel. Returning to the house the next day he discovered a trail of blood and Van Gogh deep asleep in bed with no memory of the previous night. The traumatic events ended the dream of living and working together. Gauguin left for Paris, later moving to Tahiti, never to see Van Gogh again. For the rest of his short life Van Gogh struggled with mental illness, which Gayford attributes to bipolar disorder, gaining fame only after his death.

After reading the book, I found myself looking at the world differently, imagining how Van Gogh or Gauguin would see it. One of Van Gogh’s breakthroughs was in placing contrasting colors side by side. Placing colors together which are opposites on the color wheel creates a visual frisson, or what Van Gogh called electricity. He even had a box of yarn to test out color combinations before using his paints.

Interested in creating art work in the style of Van Gogh? Here is a project suitable for any age. Take some time to look at one of Van Gogh’s paintings, such as A Starry Night. Use a blue or gray colored pastel or construction paper along with chalk pastels in white, yellows, oranges, blues, and purples. Black can be added as an accent. Lightly sketch in your own version of A Starry Night. Look at how Van Gogh painted the wind, winding around the canvas, or the stars radiating out as if glowing. Working from dark to light, use thick, short broken strokes and follow the contour of shapes, repeating the pattern over and over until filling the composition. You may find yourself seeing the world just a little bit differently.

Did you know? You can even borrow a framed print of a Van Gogh painting or one from Gauguin via the HCLS Art Collection.

Nina L. is a Customer Service Specialist at the Miller Branch of HCLS. She loves art, yoga, dogs, cats, and reading horizontally.