Vincent van Gogh, Still life with Bible and La joie de vivre by Emile Zola (F117 JH 946), 1885, Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)
A remarkable literary mind
Vincent van Gogh's spiritual, intellectual and artistic concerns have always been inextricably connected, being the three cornerstones that support the edifice of the artist's life and work. It would be inconceivable nowadays to study one of the three without considering the other two.
Nearly 800 literary references can be found in the 900 letters that comprise Vincent van Gogh's correspondence, while almost 150 authors are mentioned. These figures are not exceptionally high, given that the artist conducted this correspondence over a period of 18 years. They do show, however, that Van Gogh liked to share his impressions of what he was reading with his correspondents, and that he liked to illustrate his remarks using examples drawn from literature.
Literature appears to have permeated every aspect of the painter's life. His social contacts and family rapports, his successive choice of careers, his aesthetic theories, and, inevitably, his intellectual development, seem to a large extent to have been conditioned by authors and books - the first and foremost of which was the Bible. Nevertheless, Van Gogh's relationship to religious writings was extremely odd, for he combined a sometimes-blind faith and extreme devotion with a tendency to cite texts that profoundly questioned the very foundations of Christianity. His desire to put himself entirely in God's hands did not stop him from reading the works of Jules Michelet, Ernest Renan, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and many other authors who had expressed serious doubts about to the truth of the Scriptures (fig. 1).
Nevertheless, thanks to the agency of his father, who was a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church, Van Gogh was raised with the greatest respect for biblical texts. What he may have retained the most from this education, however, from his earliest years, was that books were a source of invaluable knowledge, and that there was a text to justify, or at least explain, every event, every action and every situation.
In this context it is not surprising that Van Gogh used his readings to validate, explain and illustrate the activity that would bring him immense posthumous glory, that of painting. As he himself wrote in a famous letter, his first in French: ‘If you now can forgive a man for considering pictures in greater depth, [you can] admit besides that the love of books is as sacred as that of [loving] Rembrandt, and I even think that the two complement each other’ [154/133] (fig. 2).
The notion that some literary theory, school or specific movement fundamentally conditioned Van Gogh's painting is not, however, tenable. Although the artist certainly compared everything around him and everything that concerned him with what he was reading, analysis of this comparison does not foster greater understanding of the man and his work unless one appreciates how Van Gogh read.
Kee Vos-Stricker (cousin of Vincent van Gogh) and her son Jan, Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)
It should also be remembered that the ideas circulating in the age to which Van Gogh belonged did not emanate from just a few limited sources. On the contrary, the cultural and intellectual context in which these ideas emerged should be regarded as a milieu in ferment, characterised by an extraordinary dynamism, subject to numerous influences and stimulated by continual interaction. For example, Van Gogh certainly read and admired naturalist literature, in particular that of Emile Zola.1 Nothing could be less surprising. But is it really appropriate to compare Zola's naturalism with Van Gogh's works, in order to prove that the one influenced the other?
Reading the literature of one's age, even literature one deeply admires, does not necessarily mean one is influenced by it. And inevitable analogies prove nothing - save that one artist is a contemporary of another. Even if Van Gogh found novel and original ideas in Zola's work, ones that may have caused him to investigate new and unexplored intellectual areas, he certainly did not read Zola in the same way as Zola wrote. It is therefore far more appropriate to consider the specific characteristics of Van Gogh's style of reading, and to attempt to comprehend the effect of the prisms and distortions that made up his intellectual reading spectacles, than to compare raw products created by artists of such differing temperaments, careers and education.
In Avant et après (1903), Paul Gauguin wrote that ‘Daudet, de Goncourt [and] the Bible burned that Dutchman's brains.’ Indeed. And the nature and intensity of that fire should certainly be considered, in order to gain a fuller understanding of the ideas Van Gogh derived or encountered during his reading.
In attempting to follow the evolutions and perturbing convulsions of Vincent van Gogh's mind, it is therefore essential to establish what he was reading and how he was reading it, as well as what he was not reading. Joris-Karl Huysmans proves a striking example. Although Van Gogh had read works by Huysmans, and even judged him one of the most important writers of the period, he viewed the author as a member of the naturalist school, like Zola. In so doing, Van Gogh missed the most important aspect of Huysman's work. Significantly, he probably did not read any of the author's decadent work, and if he did, he entirely failed to notice the difference between Les soeurs Vatard and En ménage. Moreover, Van Gogh makes no reference in his correspondence to A rebours (1884), a book which profoundly marked his contemporaries and represented a brutal break with naturalism.2
Nor does Van Gogh refer to any poets of his time. At the age of around 20 he had certainly mentioned several celebrities of sentimental romanticism, poets who had been all the rage some 40 years before and whose work seeped down to him in lingering traces through the moral filters of what was ‘done’ and ‘not done.’ At no point, however, does he plunge into the unfathomable depths of the innovative poetry produced by his contemporaries. The artist refers neither to Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine, nor to Stéphane Mallarmé. Charles Baudelaire barely merits a
mention - and a grudging one at that, in which Van Gogh declares that the poet had understood nothing about Rembrandt. As for the writers of the Enlightenment, Vincent quotes prolifically from Candide and proclaims his admiration for Denis Diderot, but appears to have been oblivious to the existence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu. The artist was very fond of Victor Hugo, but ignored everything by François-René de Chateaubriand. These omissions are very telling, since they reveal that Van Gogh was only interested in material he could apply to his own life. Having learned at an early age to use texts to justify his actions, his points of view and his decisions, it was natural for the artist, in the pursuit of pleasure and intellectual development, to consider only those writings that he might utilise on his chosen path, as guides, manuals and defences. Thus, the literary panorama that emerges from Vincent van Gogh's correspondence should be regarded as the mirror of his intellect, rather than the source of his ideas.
Unlike Gauguin, Van Gogh never wrote anything he intended for publication. Although he wrote a great deal - with passion and integrity, employing striking, often well-chosen language - this is not enough to make an author of him. What is certain, however, is that he endeavoured to live what he called ‘the life of an artist,’ and that the status which he accorded to writing in this life was so great that it is impossible to explain other aspects of his existence - such as his relationship with Gauguin - without exploring his literary mind.
It is useful to recall several events in Van Gogh's life and to highlight the role that literature played on these occasions. In 1881, for example, when he fell passionately in love with his cousin Kee Vos (fig. 3), literature was at the heart of the affair. This famous episode has been already expounded from a number of angles by various authors, so it is unnecessary to reconsider all the details of Van Gogh's unrequited love.3 Kee Vos energetically rejected Van Gogh's insistent proposals, using words that would haunt the developing painter for many months to come: ‘nooit, neen, nimmer’ (‘never, no, never ever’) [153/177]. This triple refusal, intended to deny Van Gogh any hope of seeing their relationship take a positive turn, did not discourage the young man from Brabant. On the contrary. He countered her ‘nooit, neen, nimmer’ with two phrases that
Title page of L'amour by Jules Michelet, Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum Library
seemed to him to negate all problems: ‘she, and no-one else,’ and ‘love more.’ The latter phrase is a quotation from L'amour (1858), a work by Michelet (fig. 4). Van Gogh constructed a dense and abstruse chain of reasoning around these quotations, which seemed to him entirely logical. From March to December 1881 his main concern was to convince Theo, his family and every individual who was more or less involved in the matter that the only truth was his contention that he and Kee should marry.
Many of the arguments he used to weave the chaotic fabric of his reasoning were drawn from Michelet's L'amour. Van Gogh regarded the renowned historian as an authority, a specialist in matters of the heart, whose opin-
ions were synonymous with truth. According to Van Gogh, Michelet's advice was ‘immediately applicable to this wearing modern life,’ and his books were a modern gospel that could guide him along life's difficult path. Nevertheless, Van Gogh only selected those passages in L'amour that he could use to serve his purpose, thereby ignoring the rest of the work, in which there is no suggestion, as one might easily guess, that it was possible to force one human being to love another.
Unfortunately for Van Gogh, Kee's feelings did not evolve in the direction he had expected. It was quite the opposite. Although this setback might have led him to admit that his interpretation of Michelet's thinking was incorrect, or simply that Michelet himself was wrong, it did not. Van Gogh continued to idolise Michelet, judging his family too narrow-minded to understand that his love for Kee would have brought her the most natural kind of happiness, if only he had been allowed the opportunity to meet her and thus convince her of it. Van Gogh even began to think that his own father, his former role model and example, understood nothing of human relationships, and he did not hesitate to state this openly. In a letter to Theo, he wrote: ‘I told Father bluntly that, given the facts, I would rather stick to Michelet's advice than his, and should choose which of the two I would follow’ [149/184].
This episode clearly shows the position occupied by literature in Van Gogh's life and mind: a dominant one, but cast in the mould - through selective references in his letters - that he wished to give it in order to best serve his interests. Although it is impossible to judge to what extent Van Gogh's use of literature was conscious, it was undeniably strategic in nature. He was not emotionally affected by literature; neither did he use it as therapy or simply to pass the time. He was an active reader, who used and applied the materials that could benefit his varying causes.
Another episode, or rather a step in the evolution of the painter's life - the loss of his faith - is very revealing of the way Van Gogh used the texts he knew. Before deciding to become an artist, his reading of the Bible was marked by an unbridled enthusiasm verging on fanaticism. It is known that he endeavoured to live a life of humility, denial and sacrifice, in order to draw as close as possible to Jesus Christ.4 What Van Gogh absorbed most from Christ's teachings was the message than in Him everything was new: Christ forgave and consoled. This divine consolation allowed believers to be ‘sorrowful yet always rejoicing,’5 because ‘Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.’6
When Van Gogh found himself without employment in the Borinage, his faith declined and he seems to have abandoned this rather literal interpretation of the Bible. After dozens of letters amounting to little more than strings of biblical quotations, his correspondence suddenly ceases to contain any such references at all. But although the artist abandoned the Scriptures, he did not abandon his approach to reading. As his fruitless attempt to obtain the heart and hand of his cousin shows, he simply transferred his literal, selective and ardent interpretation of the Bible to other works in which he found material of use to him.
Thus, when Van Gogh set off down the path of art, he sought to support his choices with meticulously selected literary extracts. For example, in 1883, while endeavouring to improve his drawing skills in The Hague, he found a great deal of comfort in Le peuple (1846), another book by Michelet. He considered it a superb model, one that demonstrated that art was not inevitably associated with refinement: a rough sketch, such as Le peuple, was just as admirable as the French historian's more finished works [266/324]. This was Van Gogh's response to any remarks or criticism regarding the rough, unfinished or hasty appearance of his own drawings.
At a later stage, Van Gogh would find more explicit elements of aesthetic theory in naturalist literature, in particular in the work of Edmond and Jules de Concourt, Huysmans, Zola, Alphonse Daudet and Guy de Maupassant, and put these to use. His discovery of this movement led him to develop the view that art was ‘man added to nature,’ representing reality in the most objective manner possible but also taking account of the fact that the artist's intervention is necessarily accompanied by a certain degree of subjectivity, and that artistic representation is conditioned by the specific characteristics of the artist's personality. As Van Gogh wrote in 1888: ‘Am reading Pierre and Jean de Guy de Maupassant. It's fine - have you read the preface explaining the freedom which the artist has to exaggerate, to create a nature [that is] more lovely, more simple [and] more comforting in a novel [...]’ [470/589] (fig. 5).
Zola called this essential freedom ‘temperament,’ an unfortunate choice of term, but appropriate in the case of Van Gogh, whose temperament effectively conditioned his artistic production, as it conditioned other aspects of
Letter 589/470 from Vincent to Theo van Gogh (detail), Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)
his life. Van Gogh thus found a new defence, a new justification in naturalist theory: modern French authors, whom his family had entirely failed to understand, thought it possible to be an artist only by interpreting reality through temperament. This, however, was Van Gogh's own conception of naturalism. The fact that he herewith overlooked its most fundamental aspects did not bother him in the least: heredity, background - Van Gogh had no time for these. What mattered to him was being able to pursue his own course while brandishing the new flag of naturalism - a modern, scientific theory. In his relationship with his brother, Van Gogh was a shrewd strategist, using literature to demonstrate in pseudo-scholarly turns of phrase, erudite terms and with lashings of literary reference, that his acts and choices were correct.
Of course, Van Gogh was not a naturalist in the true sense. He preferred the simple stories of Erckmann-Chatrian and the novels of Charles Dickens to the literary experiments of the de Goncourt brothers, who only described relentless misfortune. Van Gogh admired exaggerated characters, with no psychological depth, such as Daudet's Tartarin or Voltaire's Candide. He was not interested in what actually lay at the heart of naturalism, at its core. He even admitted this himself: ‘At present I am finally reading L'immortel by Daudet, which I think very fine but hardly comforting. I believe I shall be obliged to read a book about elephant hunting or a totally fallacious book of categorically impossible adventures by Gustave Armand, for example, in order to overcome the distress in which L'immortel will leave me. Precisely because it is so fine and so true in showing the emptiness of the civilised world. I should say, however, that I prefer his Tartarin as a real force’ [530/676].
Although ‘fine and [..] true,’ L'immortel is, in fact, depressing. And this is precisely what Van Gogh feared in matters of art. Tartarin de Tarascon, on the other hand, gave him the comfort he sought in a work of art, through simplification and caricature.
‘Les isolés: Vincent van Gogh,’ by Albert Aurier, Mercure de France (January 1890)
Beauty and reality: the ‘type’
In their respective creative processes, Zola and Van Gogh both sought an aesthetic emotion - which Van Gogh prosaically called ‘beauty’ - born of the encounter between reality and art. The artist is set apart by his capacity to communicate the sensation of beauty he has experienced, through great technical skill and an ability to extract from reality that which is characteristic. Thus, for both Van Gogh and Zola, reality and beauty were indissociable concepts in matters of art. It was not a question of faithfully reproducing reality, but of obtaining representative models from the world at large. Artistic emotion then grew out of the reader or viewer's recognition of these models. For Zola, the key was objectivity; for Van Gogh consolation.
The reality Van Gogh sought in the works of art he saw and produced was superior to reality itself. It was a transcendent reality. In a letter [133/154] written during his time in the Borinage, he expressed the idea that what great artists had in common, beyond the limits of art or literature, was their ability to present a reality that was ‘more real’ than reality itself. Van Gogh remained faithful to this idea, and to the desire to surpass reality in order to show the beauty of it, until the end of his artistic career. Logically, he refused to detach himself completely from the world of objects, as Gauguin suggested during their time together in the Yellow House in Arles. Van Gogh intended to exaggerate, but not to betray reality. During the last year of his life he wrote: ‘Aurier's article would encourage me, if I were to dare to let myself go, to take more risks and go beyond reality and do things with colour like a tonal piece of music, in the same way as certain Monticellis. But trueness to life is so dear to me, striving to create what is true to life, too, that after all I believe, I believe I still prefer to be a cobbler than a musician, with colours’ [626/855] (fig. 6).
Van Gogh had a highly personal recipe for conjuring up this ‘dear reality’ - the notion of the type. This term first appears in his correspondence during the period in which he began drawing the Walloon miners, in 1879, at which point he had not yet mentioned a single naturalist work [126/147]. In June of the same year, he formulated a theory on the way to render reality through artistic means: ‘I know no better definition of the word Art than this, Art is man added to nature, reality [and] truth, but with a meaning, with a point of view, [and] with a character which the artist brings out and to which he gives expression, which he extricates, disentangles, releases [and] clarifies’ [130/151]. The final occurrence of the word ‘type’ in his correspondence appears in a letter written at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, in January 1890: ‘To give an idea of Provence it is essential to do several more canvases of cypress trees and mountains. The ravine and another canvas of mountains with foreground path are the types for this. [...] It has taken me all this time to observe the character of the pine trees, cypresses etc, in the pure air here, the lines that do not change and which one finds at every step’ [622/838].
Van Gogh also wrote that he thought it ‘very interesting’ [448/559] that both Daudet and Turgenev shared the idea of using different models to create a single entity, a standard model or type. Once again, Van Gogh did not derive this idea from the authors themselves: he simply encountered in their writings what he himself was already thinking, thereby finding confirmation for his opinions.
What Van Gogh expected to find in the books he read and the pictures he viewed was a ‘type’ that characterised an aspect of reality. This is also what he endeav-
oured to reproduce in his own work, by exaggerating the most striking features of his surroundings. Undoubtedly this is also the way in which he eventually grasped reality, that ‘dear reality’ which was not, however, ‘real life...’ He thus painted Patience Escalier not as a Provençal shepherd, but as the archetypal Provençal shepherd. Beneath Van Gogh's brush, the Roulin family members are merely a representation of French types, of secondary interest as individuals in themselves. Eugène Boch is ‘the poet,’ Madame Ginoux the Arlésienne... suitable representatives, characteristic of a category.
The life of an artist
During his first weeks in Arles, Van Gogh wrote: ‘Morals, moreover, seem to me less inhuman and contrary to nature than in Paris. But with my temperament, having a wild time and working are not at all compatible, and in the given circumstances [one] should make do with making pictures. Which is not happiness and not real life but what do you expect? Even this artistic existence, which we know is not the real one, seems to me so full of life [that] it would be ungrateful not to make do with it’ [480/604].
In other words, Van Gogh had left Paris and its bustle in order to live the life of an artist. In his mind, this implied artistic views, artistic impressions and artistic discussions, without any interruption other than to sleep. He thus created for himself an intense and feverish existence, into which he plunged with delight. He arrived in the Midi as much a stranger to Arles as he was to ‘real life’; inevitably, he resorted to literary means to describe his surroundings: ‘the zouaves, the bordellos, the adorable little Arlésienne girls going to their first communion, the priest in a surplice who resembles a dangerous rhinoceros, the absinthe drinkers, also seem to me beings from another world’ [470/589].
Living an ‘artist's life’ was Van Gogh's own idea. It cannot be associated with any specific influence, nor is it attributable to a particular author, as had so often been the case when he took pains with his writing or was busy defending an original point of view. No text inspired this notion of taking a deliberate step outside reality. This remarkable step, free and authoritative in itself, is the missing piece of the puzzle that explains Van Gogh's conduct as a reader and man of letters: he was not, in fact, dependant on his literary sources. Of course, when he needed to justify an important choice, or had to explain some action that could potentially cause problems, particularly for Theo, his financial and moral support, he turned to ‘the greats.’ But in Arles he began to display a maturity and an assurance in his writing that had previously been lacking. As a result of his intention to ‘learn to read as one should learn to see and to live’ [133/154], Van Gogh now proclaimed his ideas loudly and often joyously described his surroundings, reducing them to a simplified environment peopled by ‘types’ whom he distinguished and seemed to appraise with the greatest of ease in this strange new world.
In Arles, Van Gogh no longer restricted himself to comparing his natural and social environment with literature, but also describes it in a highly personal and extraordinarily literary manner, stepping far beyond the framework of a pure exchange of information and using literary language to communicate his thoughts and impressions. The artist's writing perfectly exemplifies the consequence of adding man to nature: he was never as animated as when endeavouring to put into words something he considered ‘typical.’
In his letters from Arles, Van Gogh describes Gauguin (who was still in Brittany) in a manner that is clearly not exempt from this specific way of apprehending reality. What Van Gogh describes is a man he could not see, and whom he in essence did not really know. This did not prevent him from considering Gauguin a very close friend, however. He could only envisage Gauguin via memories of moments spent in the company of other artists in Paris, and through the few letters his colleague had sent to him.
Van Gogh and Gauguin
Gauguin's first two letters to Vincent, written in February (fig. 7) and March 1888, were polite, measured and respectful. Although Gauguin began his missives with ‘Mon cher Vincent,’ he displayed little interest in his correspondent. His remarks were essentially centred on Theo, the art dealer in charge of selling his canvases.
In May of the same year, Van Gogh wrote a letter in a very familiar tone, which he first sent to Theo by way of precaution. If Theo approved of his strategy, he was to send the missive on to Gauguin. In this letter, Van Gogh uses extremely familiar language, addressing Gauguin with the familiar ‘tu,’ calling him ‘mon copain’ and inviting him to come to Arles, where they would live like monks (with the occasional visit to the brothel). There
were many elements in the letter that assumed an already close relationship between the two artists. It seems unlikely Gauguin ever read this letter. Theo must have decided not to forward it to him, undoubtedly because he considered its language too abrupt. Gauguin's next missive is dated July. Although it concludes with the expression ‘a fond hand,’ the language is far removed from the camaraderie Van Gogh had displayed two months previously. Obviously, the latter had overestimated the degree of familiarity he could employ when addressing Gauguin. In the series of letters that followed, Gauguin and Van Gogh called each other ‘vous’ and showed at most the conventional tokens of friendship.
During the period of his correspondence with Gauguin, Vincent also wrote prolifically to Theo, his sister Wil and his friend Emile Bernard. These letters contain numerous references to Gauguin. However, the way in which the artist describes his ‘pal's’ projected stay in Arles owes much to his imagination. In fact, in the Dutchman's overactive fantasy there developed a complete fiction of a harmonious rapport between two individuals, a rapport that everything in the real world would obstruct. As was his custom, Van Gogh used many literary references and devices to establish this imaginary bond.
Initially, Van Gogh only imagined a simple collaboration. Gauguin, the ex-mariner, could teach Vincent how to cook, so that the two artists would spend less together than Vincent - who ate in restaurants - disbursed on his own. However, Van Gogh's expectations rapidly began to multiply. The projected collaboration went from being useful to essential. He and Gauguin would become the painters of the Midi, and Bernard would join them. They would share all their works, all their profits and losses. Van Gogh then expanded the horizons still further: instead of a collaboration between two artists, he began to talk of an entire school of painters. He expressed his conviction that Gauguin would like the countryside of Provence and the same subjects as he, Vincent, did. At any rate, living alone was to live like a criminal. He invited his sister Wil to visit when he had settled in with Gauguin. He announced that he and his friend would walk through Provence, and would stroll on the Canebière in Marseilles, with Van Gogh dressed for the occasion like Monticelli.
At the time of these reveries, Gauguin had still not clearly stated that he would even be coming to Arles. Reading between the lines, it becomes perfectly obvious that he was extremely hesitant about the trip. Feeling that his circumstances were incommensurate with his talent, however, he wrote to Vincent that they ought indeed to combine forces, if they wished their work to gain the recognition it deserved. Van Gogh thought that Gauguin had no other choice than to join him, and mentioned several years of living together in order for the two to continue the work begun by Monticelli. Bernard wrote to Vincent that he would also like to come to Arles, together with Laval and Moret, two other painters. Upon receiving this good news, Van Gogh became even more enthusiastic: although the group would now be too large to manage without a leader, this role could be adopted by Gauguin, the greatest, most intelligent, respected, talented and experienced artist among them.
It was at this point that the concept of the ‘Studio of the South’ was born, a project that would eventually involve four or five individuals; a project imagined by Van Gogh, who interpreted the tokens of consideration shown him and his colleagues' fanciful resolutions as actual components of a future reality. But the Yellow House was not to be the realisation of this dream, and the few weeks Vincent spent with Gauguin can in no way lay claim to the title ‘Studio of the South.’ Van Gogh urged Gauguin to hasten to Arles, write an article with him for the local paper and meet the Félibres, the poets of Provence; he even thought Seurat might like to join them.
Reality, however, proved entirely different. When Gauguin finally arrived in Arles, one of the first things he remarked on was that the town was the dirtiest place in the south. He did not like the landscape or countryside at all, and Van Gogh unexpectedly agreed with him. The two months they spent together were at odds with everything Van Gogh had imagined. Le personnage à la Loti, the man who would love Provence, the seafaring friend and cook, had obviously remained in Brittany, while someone else had come to Arles in his place. The man with whom Van Gogh shared the Yellow House did not in any respect correspond to the image he had constructed of him. The two artists did not get on. They did not walk across Provence. They did not go to Marseilles to stroll on the Canebière. Bernard, Laval, Moret and Seurat never joined them.
It is therefore not so surprising that Van Gogh became agitated and threw a glass at him when Gauguin announced his planned departure. The Dutchman, who had spent nearly eight months imagining all kinds of wonders,
must have spent the past six weeks suppressing his disappointment. It was not simply incompatible temperaments that made the Arles experiment a total failure; rather, it was the incompatibility of Van Gogh's imagination with reality that produced the disastrous outcome. As Van Gogh himself had said, he was living the life of an artist, outside reality. Sharing his everyday existence with Gauguin - a confrontation with ‘real life’ - could only be a disappointment. At the end of his tether, his ‘brain burned’; Van Gogh was unable to cope with the immense disillusion.
Once Gauguin had left Arles, Vincent severely condemned him, describing his ‘distinguished friend’ as a deserter. At this point their friendship seemed doomed, for there was no more friendship. After several months, however, their relationship recovered from these wounds and was revived through letters, imagination and distance. As Van Gogh himself wrote: ‘come on, the imagination of the south makes friends, and between us we always have friendship’ [GAC VG/PG/743].
Imagination. Not reality. Gauguin returned to Brittany where, once again, he found himself in need of money. He wrote to Vincent, who was happy to hear from him and apologised for any harm he may have done to Gauguin during the troubled days of December. Gauguin kindly set his mind - undoubtedly prompted at least in part by his own need to keep in Theo's good graces. In the letters that followed there was no sign of any trouble: to all appearances nothing had happened and nothing had changed. The bond between Van Gogh and Gauguin returned to its natural habitat: the written word.
Like a work of art, a letter can embellish, transform or soften reality. It is not intended to convey life as it is, with all its setbacks and brutality. Under the pen of a painter who had resolved to live the life of an artist, a letter was liable to become instead a skilful disguise for reality, a strategic weapon, a means of recording the fiction of Van Gogh's own existence. His friendships with Anton van Rappard (1858-1892), Emile Bernard (1868-1941) and Gauguin all confirm this.
Van Gogh had a literary mind. His relationship with Gauguin demonstrates that his mind and spirit were not conditioned by French naturalism, or by any other literary, scientific or artistic theory. A product of his time, a performer of his age, Van Gogh applied a drastic selection process to what he read, what he saw and how he lived,
Letter GAC 28 (late February 1888) from Paul Gauguin to Vincent van Gogh (detail), Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)
employing a system that revolved around the pursuit of the ‘type.’ In so doing, the painter displayed an unwavering single-mindedness, solidly secure in an impregnable bastion which would, however, eventually prove his undoing: a resolve, a decision to live the life of an artist, without restraint, without limits and with no other concern than to produce the marvels that have made him famous today. ‘Le copain Gauguin’ had a place in this ‘artist's life.’ But not in the Yellow House.