Van Gogh and Gauguin: A Friendship Gone Awry

The excellent biography of Vincent Van Gogh by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith is out in paperback. This doesn’t make the 900+ page book exactly perfect for subway reading, but it’s a welcome development in making this definitive tome more accessible to readers. According to The Guardian, this “Van Gogh biography [is] exhaustive enough to recalibrate everything ever written by or about him.”

The Washington Post points out that the book “reads like a novel, full of suspense and intimate detail.” One especially rewarding chunk of the book takes place at the Yellow House in Arles, France, which Van Gogh rented (and painted) in 1888 as he anxiously anticipated the arrival of his new roommate, Paul Gauguin. For months, Gauguin was noncommittal about coming to the house, but Van Gogh continued to prepare for his pending arrival as the cure to his ailments. While Gauguin had been in Martinique, painting “negresses,” Van Gogh was lonely in Arles; he imagined that if Gauguin would come live with him in the Yellow House, they’d form a sort of mini-art school, and that his new friend would attract models for painting (and maybe more) for Van Gogh to work and cavort with.

In poignant detail, Naifeh and Smith describe Van Gogh furnishing what would be Gauguin’s bedroom with furniture he couldn’t afford and decorating it with his paintings, hanging paintings of his beloved sunflowers on the walls to make it cheery. When Gauguin finally arrived (unannounced), things didn’t go well. A “fierce struggle” took place in the house as the two artists clashed over everything from household duties to philosophies of painting. Gauguin barely last two months, and Van Gogh’s dreams were dashed. But maybe worst of all, Gauguin hated the sunflowers.

"Van Gogh: The Life" Illustrated by Nathan Gelgud.