Inside Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin’s Nine Turbulent Weeks as Roommates
For a brief 63 days during the fall of 1888, a yellow house at the corner of Place Lamartine in the southern French town of Arles was home to Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, a pair of Post-Impressionist painters on divergent artistic paths. The modest two-story abode, which no longer exists, was immortalized in several paintings by Van Gogh, including The Yellow House (1888) and The Bedroom (1888).
Van Gogh had moved to Arles from Paris in order to establish what he called a “studio of the south”—a utopian place to live and collaborate with fellow painters while studying the surrounding countryside. Gauguin accepted Van Gogh’s enthusiastic invitation, swayed heavily by the promised financial support from his art dealer, Van Gogh’s older brother, Theo, that accompanied his consent. The ensuing collaboration, art historian Hollis Clayson has written, was “a fraught teaming up that from Gauguin’s perspective was more a shotgun marriage than a romance.”
How this experiment in creative co-living ended is the romanticized stuff of Hollywood biopics (played out, most recently, in director Julian Schnabel’s 2018 film At Eternity’s Gate, with Willem Dafoe as Vincent van Gogh and Oscar Isaac as Gauguin). Yet during this period, Van Gogh mutilated his left ear in a fit of rage, prompting Gauguin to swiftly board a train to Paris. The two never saw each other again, though they did continue to correspond via letters. The origin story of how these art-historical megastars came to share a Provençal roof in the first place isn’t as well known. Its trajectory actually began thousands of miles away on the Caribbean island of Martinique.
A year earlier, in search of ways to distinguish his style from the pastel-hued Parisian scenes of the Impressionists, Gauguin boarded a transatlantic steamship to Panama, ultimately landing in the French colony of Martinique. This trip began the wanderlust that would characterize much of the rest of his nomadic life. (A few years later, his search for cheap and inspiring places to work would famously lead him to Tahiti.)
The 17 paintings and 3 sketchbooks Gauguin completed while living in a hut in Martinique with fellow French painter Charles Laval signaled a new direction. He imbued his works with saturated colors and populated them with porteuses—women who transported heavy bundles of fruit on their heads between the rural plantations and the urban markets.
“Gauguin developed away from transcriptive landscape scenes toward paintings dominated by interesting or enigmatic figures, usually female ones,” Karen Rechnitzer Pope, among the few art historians to research the largely overlooked Caribbean period in the artist’s life, told Artsy. “He had produced only a very few of such compositions before Martinique.”
These were painted with lush greens and warm oranges, tones that would permeate the rest of Gauguin’s most well-known works. “The experiences in Martinique showed him a new palette of vivid colors,” added Caroline Boyle-Turner, a Gauguin scholar. “Maybe it was the sense of displacement that allowed him to break away from the more muted colors that he used [before].”
The sketchbooks also marked a turning point in Gauguin’s working methods. They formed an image bank for the artist to combine elements drawn from real life into new, entirely imagined compositions (a process that would later be a serious source of contention with Van Gogh, who believed in painting strictly from life).
When Gauguin returned to Paris in November 1887, he boasted that his new works were his best yet. “I had a decisive experience in Martinique,” Gauguin later told French art critic Charles Morice. “It was only there that I felt like my real self, and one must look for me in the works I brought back from there…if one wants to know who I am.”
Notably, it was the paintings Gauguin produced there that introduced him to the Van Gogh brothers. Theo and Vincent saw the Martinique works on display at the apartment of Émile Schuffenecker, an artist friend of Gauguin’s, and were immediately drawn to them. “The Van Gogh brothers were so taken aback at the beauty of those works that they decided to acquire the most important and ambitious one of that series,” explained Joost van der Hoeven, co-curator of “Gauguin & Laval in Martinique,” the current exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum, in an interview with Artsy.
Paul Gauguin, The Mango Trees, Martinique, 1887. Courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.
Spending 400 francs on that painting—more than the brothers had paid for any other work in their growing contemporary art collection—The Mango Trees (1887) remained in the Van Gogh family long after Vincent and Theo’s deaths, retaining pride of place above their descendants’ living room sofa. Theo additionally purchased a Martinique drawing and Vincent traded two of his early sunflower paintings for a river scene. The transaction turned out to be pivotal for all three.
For the elder Van Gogh, Gauguin’s Martinique paintings illustrated the artistic possibilities of leaving Paris. “Van Gogh had tremendous respect for the fact that Gauguin went out to Martinique and sought out a place to paint in the tropics,” van der Hoeven said. These paintings may have inspired Van Gogh to set off from the city for Arles, a decision he made just a few months after meeting Gauguin. Van Gogh imagined that Arles could offer his own personal version of Japan, the result of his fascination with Japanese ukiyo-e prints, a popular source of inspiration among Parisian artists at the time.
For Theo, who was the managing art dealer of the leading Parisian gallery Boussod, Valadon & Cie, his own burgeoning relationship with Gauguin was an opportunity to introduce new and distinctive work to the market. “When the Martinique paintings reached Theo, they appealed to him as Gauguin likely intended: an exotic landscape with colorful inhabitants and a few substantial figures that could be expected to appeal to a Paris market that still appreciated solid drawing and figural subjects,” Rechnitzer Pope said.
Paul Gauguin, The Night Cafe, Arles, 1888. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
The encounter was significant for Gauguin, as well, who gained representation by a major Parisian dealer. Theo regularly exhibited Gauguin’s work at his gallery and sold many paintings and sculptures in under two years, providing the artist with a significant source of income. He was also instrumental in establishing Gauguin as a major avant-garde player, garnering him reviews by famous art critics and placing his works in important collections. Although their working relationship was cut short due to Theo’s untimely death in 1891, the younger Van Gogh made a concerted effort to sell Gauguin’s work in the years following their initial meeting.
“The Van Gogh brothers were thus responsible for Gauguin’s first serious successes in the Parisian art world following his return from Martinique,” co-curator Maite van Dijk writes in the exhibition catalogue. “Their enthusiasm and recognition were incredibly important to Gauguin.”
The nine weeks that Van Gogh and Gauguin shared in the sunflower-colored house in Arles was a highly productive period for both artists: Van Gogh made 36 canvases and Gauguin completed 21. This set of works also included portraits that the artists painted of each other. The collaboration was intense and it may have intensified their differences, too. After a few attempts at painting from imagination, Van Gogh retreated to strict study from nature. Gauguin experimented with some of Van Gogh’s chosen subjects (such as Arles locals, washerwomen, and peasants), but inevitably depicted them as he fancied.
Vincent van Gogh, L'Arlésienne: Madame Joseph-Michel Ginoux, 1888–89. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Paul Gauguin, Martinique Landscape, 1887. Courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.
Although Gauguin abruptly left a bleeding-eared Van Gogh in Arles, their friendship remained somewhat intact. “Of course you could say there was a huge ‘elephant in the room,’ but the mutual artistic respect stayed, and they continued to correspond,” noted van der Hoeven. Theo continued to represent Gauguin, and Vincent still entertained the notion of painting with him again until the last months of his own life. Gauguin’s relationship with the Van Gogh brothers even continued beyond their graves; he stored some of the paintings he had traded with Vincent at the home of Theo’s widow, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, during his first Tahitian voyage (and in gratitude gifted her two of the works he made there upon his return).
In Avant et après (1903), the autobiographical memoir Gauguin wrote during the last year of his life, the painter reminisced about his time living with Van Gogh, writing: “Unbeknownst to the public, two men accomplished in that period a colossal amount of work, useful to both of them. Perhaps to others as well? Some things bear fruit.”