“..they call a painter mad if he sees with eyes other than theirs.”
Vincent van Gogh, August 1888.
The fame and fortune of the City of Arles – in no small measure – is the legacy of two notable foreigners: Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) and Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890).
The former “came, saw, and conquered”. The latter “came, saw and ended up in hospital”.
Vincent van Gogh arrived in Arles, Provence by train on the 20th February 1888 and, rare in these parts, was greeted by snow. As a dishevelled ex-preacher and art salesman, Vincent van Gogh remained in Arles for 444 days until 8th May 1889. Acknowledged today as one of the greatest artists of all time, van Gogh created in Arles 189 paintings and 100 drawings. Many of these works are masterpieces of unrivalled colour and beauty. Today, van Gogh’s Arlesien works are hanging in all of the world’s most prestigious spaces and sell for record prices. In Vincent’s footsteps have trailed millions of tourists and artists such as Pablo Picasso and David Hockney.
Who Was Vincent van Gogh?
Vincent Willem van Gogh (30 March 1853 – 29 July 1890) was a Dutch Post-Impressionist painter who posthumously became one of the most famous and influential figures in Western art history. In a decade, he created about 2,100 artworks, including around 860 oil paintings, most in the last two years of his life spent mainly in Arles. I discuss some of these works in other posts, here, here and here.
The story of Vincent van Gogh is not a happy one. Vincent was described as “rough, rude and ugly”. Vincent was socially awkward and a loner, plagued by mood swings and self-doubt. One moment he could be wildly ecstatic with grand plans for the future, then deeply depressed with a total loss of confidence the next. He was a pauper living on the charity of his brother Theo, a Parisian art dealer. But for all his faults, Vincent Van Gogh is today widely regarded as a genius. Such is the fickleness of the art world.
Vincent was not warmly welcomed here. The locals were wary and disrespectful of the Dutchman. Unable to pronounce his family name, the Arlesians called him ‘Vincent’. The populace smirked and sneered at his guttural accent and awkward ways, and Vincent fell out with almost everyone. People disliked his paintings and wrote him off as a crazy loser. A gang of vandals beat him up and squirted his paints onto the pavement.
Vincent had no real friends in Arles. He spent his time wandering the streets and the fields, drawing, painting, writing letters and drinking in the Café de la Gare at Place Lamartine (The Night Café). He would make so-called ‘hygienic’ visits to nearby maisons de tolérance in Rue du Bout d’Arles and Rue des Récollets. To Vincent, these sex workers were not prostitutes, but “kind girls”.
For the most part, Vincent led a miserable life, working tirelessly for zero material reward. A key word in understanding Vincent van Gogh is hope. He lived upon it. It was his bread and water.
Exactly why Vincent came here nobody really knows. There are several possible reasons. He may have come south to live more cheaply, some say it was the lower cost of absinthe, but in his letters Vincent wrote that it was to improve his health, and to receive inspiration from the natural beauty of Provence and the clear blue skies. Vincent thought the Arlesiennes to be a noble and beautiful people. He would seek attractive models for portraits but without success. He hoped to purchase paintings for his brother Theo by the artist Monticello (1824-1886) who had lived in Marseille until his death two years previously. However, Vincent never reached Marseille or could afford to buy any Monticello paintings. Vincent’s pipe dream was to form an artistic community by inviting other artists to join him, notably Paul Gauguin.
In Arles, lonely and dejected, Vincent produced some of the most wonderful art in human history. His early paintings in Arles showed blossoming fruit trees and rural landscapes in Spring. Japanese art was in vogue among Parisian art lovers and Vincent wrote that he felt that he had found “absolute Japan” in the South of France, that here “one sees things with a more Japanese eye”. He compared paintings he did at Saintes-Maries on the Mediterranean coast to works by Monet in Antibes and his country scenes to those of Paul Cézanne in nearby Aix. For Vincent, Provence was a “painter’s paradise”, a utopian Shangri-La. “[In] that flat landscape, there is nothing but eternity.”
Vincent became a mystic, seeing Nature as Paradise. He wrote to fellow artist Émile Bernard: “this part of the world seems to me as beautiful as Japan for the clearness of the atmosphere and the gay colour effects. The stretches of water make patches of a beautiful emerald and a rich blue in the landscapes, as we see it in the Japanese prints. Pale orange sunsets making the fields look blue — glorious yellow suns.” The fact that he had never been to Japan was no obstacle.
The Yellow House
After falling out with his landlord, Vincent leased a derelict 4-roomed, the so-called Yellow House, at the right-hand side of No 2 Place Lamartine from the first of May. Vincent enthusiastically redecorated it with yellow walls and green shutters and lived in two of the rooms, using one as a studio/gallery.
While in Arles, Vincent sold precisely nothing. Theo continued to send 150 francs a month in return for 12 paintings a year. Only one painting ever sold in Vincent’s lifetime, The Red Vineyard, a few months before his death for a meagre 400 francs. One hundred years later, in 1990, Christie’s sold Portrait of Dr. Gachet for 148.9 million dollars (in today’s values).
Visit of Paul Gauguin
Vincent invited another artist to stay in the Yellow House, Paul Gauguin, aged 40, and already selling works to Theo. By association with the more successful Gauguin, he hoped that he would increase sales of his work. In his invitation to Gauguin he spoke of a monastic existence with “cold water, fresh air, simple good food, decent clothes, a decent bed.” He was inspired by the idea of an ‘artistic brotherhood’, a Studio of the South, where artists would gather to create a new movement, saying, as any classic postcard would do: “It is so beautiful, and I so wish you were here.”
Vincent’s dream became reality when Paul Gauguin visited for nine weeks as Vincent’s guest in the Yellow House. Unfortunately the dream turned into a nightmare. Vincent filled the place with furnishings, paintings and special touches to make it comfortable for Gauguin. He bought 12 chairs for a ‘School of Art’ where he hoped artists would gather to progress the work of Gauguin and Vincent. These were manic times of great activity and inspiration for Vincent and there was no limit to his imagination. To Theo he wrote:”Do you realize we are at the beginning of a very great thing, which will open a new era for us.” Vincent was desperate to persuade himself and brother Theo that Theo’s lifetime investment of 15,000 francs would, one day, be repaid.
Paul Gauguin arrived in Arles at 5AM on October 23rd, 1888. A few days later, Gauguin received 500 francs from Theo from the sale of one of his paintings. This must have been a body blow to Vincent. To Vincent, Gauguin was the proven Master, he the willing Student. Theo was exhibiting Gauguin’s works in his Paris gallery, bringing not only money but glowing reports of Gauguin’s mastery. Sales of five more Gauguin paintings and some of his pottery yielded another fifteen hundred francs of hard cash. How Vincent’s already cracked ego must have been crushed by the rapid success of his much admired visitor.
These early blows were followed in quick succession by Gauguin’s love conquests in Alyscamps, which had become a hunting ground for eligible and pretty young Arlésiennes. Meanwhile, Vincent had to make do with the prostitutes in the Rue des Récollets. Within a week of his arrival Gauguin had enticed Marie Ginoux from the Café de la Gare to sit for a portrait in the Yellow House, something Vincent had failed to achieve in the previous eight months. Vincent envied the success of his house guest who had achieved more in a week than Vincent had in two-thirds of a year.
Yet, in spite of Vincent’s ambitions and brotherly love to Gauguin, Gauguin was competitive and saw their relationship as a contest to be won. “I have a need for a struggle”, he said, using the words, la lutte (the fight). The two men were very different creatures and there was tension between them from day 1. Yes, they shared a love of painting and smoking their pipes, but they had quite different personalities. The two men had little else in common and both were quick-tempered and easily offended. Having been a merchant seaman and stockbroker, Gauguin was dark, handsome and potent, a married man who had fathered five children. Although only five feet four, he could be intimidating, a bully even. Gauguin boxed, fenced, drank alcohol sparingly, and was charismatic. Compared to Vincent, Gauguin was cool-headed and well organised, some would say cunning or scheming even. Gauguin wrote years later that, while in Arles, he had been: “strong as a bull and lazy as a snake.” His fencing and his art both benefitted from his cool mind and working from his imagination (‘de tete’) .
Prone to illness, Vincent suffered from frequent stomach pains, and bouts of melancholy, loneliness and heavy drinking. He felt he was ugly and suffered from impotence, waning confidence and dejection. “I am getting older and uglier than my interest demands”, he wrote. Their painting techniques mirrored their two personalities and could not have been more different. Gauguin worked indoors from his imagination, making areas of careful, measured, plain, flat colour without any visible brush strokes, methodically, taking his time. Vincent needed to work with the subject in front of him, preferably outdoors, directly from nature. He would attack the canvas with great bursts of energy using thick, slashing strokes, an impasto technique, and worked extremely fast. Vincent completed a large portrait of L’Arlésienne (Madame Ginoux), a painting that is hanging in the Louvre, in just one hour. Paul Gauguin’s version of the same subject took many days to complete and combined sketches of the model with elements from his imagination.
One thing everybody knows about Vincent van Gogh – sometimes the only thing – is that he “cut off his ear”. Actually it was only a part of his right ear, the ear lobe. But did Vincent really do it or was it Gauguin? The two men did indeed have a row but could it have ended with Gauguin cutting his friend’s ear off ? It has been suggested that the two men kept a “conspiracy of silence” – Gauguin to avoid prosecution and Vincent to keep a friend whom he idolised. Vincent wrapped the ear-piece in cloth and handed it to a prostitute called Rachel. When it was recovered it was too late to sew it back on so it had to be thrown away. We will never know the truth about Vincent’s “accident” but it will forever remain one of the the most talked about stories in the history of art.
Vincent in Hospital
One day later, on December 24 1888, Vincent was found lying in a pool of blood and taken to the Old Hospital in Arles (The Espace de Van Gogh). Theo visited Vincent on December 25 and left Arles with Gauguin later that day. Vincent remained in hospital for about two weeks, leaving on 8th January 1889. After another “attack”, he returned to hospital on 7th February . When Vincent left the hospital again on 17th February, 30 citizens around Place de La Martine, including a few people he would have assumed to be ‘friends’ signed a petition saying that Vincent was unfit to be free and Vincent was confined to hospital on police orders.
In May 1889 Vincent admitted himself to the asylum at Saint-Remy and remained there for about one year. In May 1890, Vincent was discharged from the asylum, traveled to Paris, before moving to Auvers-sur-Oise. Two months later he was injured by gunshot and died two days later on July 29th. Vincent’s brother Theo died almost exactly six months later. In 1914, Theo’s body was exhumed and reburied with Vincent at Auvers-sur-Oise.
Whether Vincent van Gogh shot himself, or was shot by somebody else, remains a mystery, like so much else about this extraordinary person.