Can an artist be great if he hasn’t starved a little, or seen the world through his eccentricity? In The Yellow House, Martin Gayford writes a documentary that reads like a novel, with his two main characters, the poor and upcoming self-taught artists – Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. Within nine weeks together in Southern France, they influenced both each other’s lives and art.
When Vincent Van Gogh sets up a studio that he hoped would attract a salon of artists in Arles, France, his art dealer brother Theo was justifiably concerned for his ability to manage alone. Theo bribed Gauguin with exclusivity in selling his paintings, free room and board, and an allowance that will keep both artists supported while they produce their art. Using sketches of art produced during that nine week productive period, Gayford tracks how their friendship develops, until it tragically and abruptly ends.
References to their family lives, their personal habits, and their inspirations – all reveal Van Gogh and Gauguin as real men – more than the myths of “crazy artist and seer” attributed to Van Gogh, and Gauguin as “the painter who rejected civilization and went to live on the other side of the world in a primitive Eden.” Like all their paintings, their stories were not so black and white.
In his last two chapters, “The Crisis” and “The Aftermath,” Gayford brings his biographical story to its climax and explains the incident of Van Gogh’s ear as well as Gauguin’s eventual relocation to Tahiti. If you skip over some of the other chapters, these two are worth your attention – again, the real story is more than the myths.
The Yellow House was a slow read for me; I actually read chapters now and then while reading other books – not a book that compelled me to stay with it – but an easy tutorial about who was behind those familiar renditions of sunflowers, starry nights, women, and self-portraits.