A few years ago, I was in Amsterdam on a business trip, for a series of meeting at a hotel right near Schiphol Airport. You can likely guess how much of Amsterdam you see from a hotel conference room. But we finished at noon on the final day; my flight home wasn’t until the next morning, and so I grabbed a taxi and gave the driver a simple three-word instruction.
"Van Gogh Museum."
My wife and I had been to Amsterdam in 1999, but the museum was closed. She had seen it on a business trip in the 1970s.
I stood in line with everyone else, paid my admission, and then wandered. And the painting that captured me, like it has captured so many other people, was “The bedroom” (and that’s it at the top). I even bought a tile reproduction of it, which still sits on a desk at home.
The painting has a history. Vincent Van Gogh first painted it in October 1888, and sent a drawing of it to Paul Gauguin. Shortly after, with a little urging from Van Gogh’s brother (and Gauguin’s agent) Theo, Gauguin moved to Arles, and moved into the extra bedroom of the house Vincent was renting. The house was painted yellow, irregularly shaped to fit the streets around it, and neighbor to a somewhat disreputable grocer and a brothel.
Martin Gayford’s The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles is the story of what happened.
For nine weeks stretching from October into December of 1888, Gauguin and Van Gogh were housemates. They painted, often together. They ate together. They visited the brothel together. Gauguin brought some financial management to the household. From the beginning, Van Gogh was thrilled, and Gauguin a bit wary. Gauguin was seeing his works recognized and, more importantly, sell to buyers. Van Gogh was not, and his mental state was deteriorating. At the end of nine weeks, Gauguin moved out, and Van Gogh mutilated his ear.
But what happened during those nine weeks was important for the two painters and their art.
It’s a fascinating story. Gayford, an art critic for Bloomberg News and the author of a number of books on art and artists, has painstakingly constructed the story from contemporary accounts, biographies, and letters both artists wrote to Theo Van Gogh and other artists and friends. The impetus for the work, Gayford writes, came from the exhibition in Amsterdam in 2002, “Van Gogh and Gauguin and the Studio of the South.” (It also was shown at the Art Institute of Chicago later that same year.)
The two couldn’t have been more different. Gauguin seems almost larger than life, in control, a successful career underway. Van Gogh seems smaller, a nervous man, ignoring the taunts and ridicule of the children of Arles who observe the eccentric painting wandering around the town.
The work reads almost like a novel, yet Gayford remains true to his sources. Van Gogh’s mental state is deteriorating, and the tension of the story builds towards an inevitable crisis.
Gayford has written books on sitting for a portrait by Lucian Freud, Michaelangelo, and artist David Hockney, among numerous other subjects. He brings a critic’s eye to the story of Gauguin and Van Gogh, helping us understand the art they created during that short period as much as the lives each man lived. Gayford also provides the context of local life in Arles, the age of Impressionism, and what larger events were happening in France.
The Yellow House is a fine story, told extremely well.
Painting: The bedroom by Vincent Van Gogh, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. The illustration of the book cover is that for the UK paperback edition, which is different from the cover for the US edition. I purchased my copy at the National Gallery of Art in London, but both editions are available from Amazon.