Housemates from Hell

Spectator

Housemates from Hell

15 April 2006

Sebastian Smee

The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles

Martin Gayford
Fig Tree/ Penguin, 356pp, £18.99

Moreover, in important ways the story has changed. Some savvy detective work by a small army of scholars has recently provided new answers to the main questions: Why did things turn sour? And what made Van Gogh — what would make anyone — cut off his ear?

You know the plot already: Van Gogh and Gauguin establish themselves in the south of France, juiced up with communal idealism, hoping to make a go of it: ‘a studio of the south’. They fall out, Vincent cuts off his ear, delivers it to a local prostitute, goes home and falls asleep. Gauguin leaves the next morning, eventually ends up in Tahiti. There’s a movie, starring Kirk Douglas, a spate of blockbuster exhibitions, and even a song by Don McLean.

Is this a story that really needs revisiting?

Actually, yes. The melodrama of those two months in Arles has been oversold, it’s true. But here is a book to remind us that the episode is not just a gigantic myth; that it is tragic, pathetic, unfathomable, and so strange it simply has to be real.