Van Gogh’s Yellow House in Arles
The “yellow house” is the one that Van Gogh was to share with Gauguin – but as it turned out, his dream of a studio in the south shared by like-minded painters lasted only two months.
When he first got to Arles in February, he lived in rooms above a restaurant, but that didn’t suit his vision of what his “studio of the south” would be. He moved to a second location because he thought he was being over-charged in the first one (went to court and won a refund), but kept looking for a more permanent home.
Then in May, he rented the house. He wrote to Theo, triumphantly, “Well today I rented the right wing of this building (a sketch is enclosed) which is made up of four rooms or rather two with two closets. It is painted yellow outside, inside the walls are white lime-washed, facing the sunshine. I got it for a rent of 15 francs a month.”
But to give you an idea of his life at the time, in the same letter he wrote, “I wouldn’t be afraid of anything unless it was this bloody health. And yet I’m better than in Paris, and if my stomach has become terribly weak that’s a problem I picked up there, probably due mainly to the bad wine, of which I drank too much. Here the wine is just as bad, but I only drink very little of it. And so the fact is that as I hardly eat and hardly drink I’m very weak, but my blood is improving instead of being ruined. So once again, it’s patience I need in the circumstances, and perseverance.”
Van Gogh then went about furnishing it. He visited the used furniture dealers and haggled for beds, chairs, a table, mirrors and everything his household studio would need – all paid for by his brother Theo. You can see the result in his series of bedroom paintings. He even did “portraits” of two of the chairs he bought – one was specifically his chair, the other, Gauguin’s.
Theo, who is one of unquestioned saints of the art world, completely supported Vincent financially for about the last five or six years of his life. In exchange, Vincent sent him his paintings, which he was firmly convinced would have value some day, despite the fact that they didn’t sell at all, despite Theo’s efforts.
Having furnished the studio, he created paintings specifically to decorate it for Gauguin’s arrival.
Vincent thought strategically of what paintings he wanted in his studio to show Gauguin. He chose a theme – sunflowers – and set about painting them.
He wrote to Theo, “Now that I hope to live with Gauguin in a studio of our own, I want to make decorations for the studio. Nothing but big flowers. Next door to your shop, in the restaurant, you know there is a lovely decoration of flowers; I always remember the big sunflowers in the window there.
If I carry out this idea there will be a dozen panels. So the whole thing will be a symphony in blue and yellow. I am working at it every morning from sunrise on, for the flowers fade so soon, and the thing is to do the whole in one rush.”
During the summer he’d painted harvest scenes of wheat fields, he’d been down to the Mediterranean and painted fishing boats and he’d painted many portraits, both of the people around him and some self-portraits. In all, in the course of about a year in Arles he produced approximately 300 paintings and drawings.
In Vincent’s mind, the money that Theo sent him every month, was in exchange for his paintings. As far as he was concerned, it was a “business enterprise”. He thought about it that way because he couldn’t bear to think of it as being charity. So, to uphold his end of the enterprise he sent the paintings. He would take the paintings off their stretchers and roll them up together, with 10 to 20 paintings in a roll. He would either just ship them by post, or on occasion, if a friend was going to Paris, have the friend take them along.