Drawing from extensive written correspondence, Martin Gayford provides a detailed account of the nine weeks Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin shared a house in the south of France. Van Gogh fans will remember this time in his life as the lead-up to cutting his own ear off and presenting it to a female neighbor.
Van Gogh and Gauguin were the odd couple of the art world – one volatile, the other calm. Gayford’s account is vibrant, shares an appreciation for both artists, and does not pander to the seedy underbelly of artists who frequent houses of ill repute and enjoy a drink. While reporting on the facts – or at least what is best known from letters and records of the time – Gayford also uncovers the influence the artists had on each other, as well as the influence of local arts, literature, news and the people of Arles.
Both artists worked voraciously despite any personality conflicts, and both produced some of their most enduring work in these nine weeks, including the paintings of and around the famed yellow house and its décor.
The constant undercurrent and eventual monster of the book is Van Gogh’s mental state. He likely had a bipolar disorder that was a heavy burden on his relationships. He also suffered from digestive problems that gave him great pain. Van Gogh explained his manic energy as electricity – an electric current that spiked his mood, discussion and paintings. People around Van Gogh found his electricity abrasive and would avoid discussions with him. Near the end of their relationship, Gauguin would forfeit arguments, a defensive maneuver to save himself the grief.
The story of Van Gogh cutting off his ear is one of art history’s best-known legends. Gayford attempts to make a reasonable argument behind Van Gogh’s actions. This is Gayford’s best strength in writing. He has been able to turn two legendary art figures into people - simple artists who were reading, listening and soaking up everything around them, then taking it to their canvases.