October 23, 1888
While it was still dark, shortly after 5 o’clock in the morning, a train clanked into the station at Arles and a solitary, exhausted passenger got out. He had been travelling now for nearly two days. His journey had begun the previous Sunday in Pont Aven, on the Atlantic coast of Brittany, almost seven hundred miles away. Since then he had moved by stages from a damp, green region on the Atlantic coast to a flat plain near the point where River Rhône met the Mediterranean.
The route had taken him right across France, via Nantes and Tours, Clermont Ferrand and Lyon. Although he was now in the sunny south the night air was chilly – only 5° Centigrade. He stepped out of the station, turned left and walked under the railway bridge, then along the street until he came to a large open square. On his right was the embankment of a wide river – the Rhône. To the left was the house he was heading for, its shutters still closed. But just at the junction of the street and the square there were signs of animation in an all-night café. He opened the door.
It was bright inside, because of the lamps hanging from the ceiling. The walls were red, the floor boards bare. Around the sides of the room were tables topped with marble; in the centre was a big billiard table, and at the back of the room, a small bar covered with assorted bottles. On the wall above, over the entrance to an inner room, hung a handsome clock, still showing not much after five o’clock. The owner looked at the newcomer, then exclaimed. ‘You’re the pal. I recognise you!’
The speaker, Joseph Ginoux, was proprietor of the café – a new establishment that had opened only at the beginning of the year. He was talking to a forty-year-old artist with some reputation in the circles of the avant-garde. Ginoux had identified him by means that – even in the 1880s were – old-fashioned. Earlier, he had been shown a painted portrait, and been told to look out for its subject who would be arriving soon.
Paul Gauguin settled down in the Café de la Gare to wait for dawn. When the sun finally rose, he went out, crossed over to number 2 place Lamartine, whose yellow walls and green painted woodwork could now clearly be seen, and knocked on the door. It was opened by Vincent Van Gogh.
This was, it was safe to say, among the most exhilarating and also the most anxious moments of Vincent’s life. No sooner had he signed the lease for the Yellow House, almost six months before, than Vincent had started to evolve a plan. He didn’t want to live in the house alone; he desperately yearned for company. Right from the first, Gauguin had come to mind as the ideal companion. On that very day he had written to his younger brother, Theo describing the house and floating a suggestion, ‘Perhaps Gauguin would come south?’
The notion rapidly grew into an obsession. From the end of May for the following five months, by letter Vincent plotted, cajoled, argued, pleaded and insisted that Gauguin should journey to Arles and join him. He persuaded Theo – who was already supporting Vincent himself – to offer the penurious painter a deal: free board and lodging in exchange for pictures, provided he agreed to live in 2, place Lamartine, the Yellow House. Theo was working as an art dealer in Paris – one of the few who supported experimental painting – so he was in a position to help Gauguin a great deal.
In reply, Gauguin accepted, then – time and again – postponed his departure. A correspondence developed between the two painters, far more intense than their actual, physical acquaintance in Paris the previous winter. Ideas were exchanged and adopted, new paintings described. Vincent was euphoric at the hope that Gauguin would soon appear, and cast down into despondency by the fear that he would not.
Recently – since Gauguin’s departure had definitely been announced – he had been consumed by the anxiety that when the other actually arrived he would not think much of Arles. Gauguin, Vincent feared, would find the area unsatisfactory in comparison to Brittany.
He might find the scenery lacking in the rich possibilities he had discovered in the north. Instead of joining in Vincent’s project, and offering his companionship, there was the tormenting possibility that Gauguin would be angry and disdainful. Vincent’s nervous tension had reached such a point that he feared he would become ill. Some explosion threatened. And now here Gauguin was, actually at the door. He came in.