The Yellow House By Martin Gayford

A turn in the south
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In the autumn of 1888, Vincent van Gogh set up house with Paul Gauguin in Arles, Provence, a part of the country to which French artists were beginning to be attracted. Van Gogh had found the modest "yellow house" in an outlying district and, fearing solitude, persuaded Gauguin, his senior by five years, to join him, even though the two did not know each other well. Van Gogh hoped their joint residence would encourage a fruitful partnership, in which they would learn from each other, and that this company would stave off the nervous problems he had already suffered.

The Yellow House was inspired by a journey that the author made in the company of art historians during the preparations for a memorable exhibition on the theme of Van Gogh and Gauguin. Captivated by the subject, Martin Gayford has set about recording the extraordinary nine weeks that inspired a flood of productivity and a number of iconic works.

The period was marked at first by relatively cordial relations between the two men, then by increasing difficulties as Van Gogh's state of mind deteriorated. Gayford records with loving attention the details of their ménage, the decoration of the rooms, meals (after a while Gauguin cooked for them both), relations with the neighbours, their painting equipment, their regular but supposedly healthy visits to the local brothel, and their financial circumstances. Gauguin was for the first time beginning to sell work, while Van Gogh, on the brink of success, was still dependent on support from his brother.

From time to time the narrative looks back at the past, to the personal lives of the two men - difficult in both cases. At the heart of the book is their stimulating but often angry and anxious relationship. Gayford's heart, one feels, is with Van Gogh, who emerges - particularly through the vivid extracts from his letters - as the more complex and indeed tragic figure. Gauguin comes over as a slightly detached observer, sometimes irritated, and later alarmed, by his companion.

The idea of studying the work and lives of artistic figures through an account of their everyday lives is a productive genre, explored recently in Penelope Hughes-Hallett's The Immortal Dinner, which describes a dinner party in London in 1817, when Keats was invited to meet Wordsworth. Such books allow the author to study the intellectual climate, and the way character is expressed in everyday social life.

Here, the element of social history is one of the strengths of the book, which conveys the rather dreary character of a small provincial town (though the fire brigade's ball sounds fun). Assiduous in assembling his material, Gayford acknowledges that he has hardly been able to discover new evidence - though he does engagingly enlarge on the areas where he has uncovered new ideas; for example, about the Arles brothels. He has explored every detail of the nine weeks, telling us which day the two men must have gone on their ill-fated expedition to Montpellier to visit the Musée Fabre, and which train they must have caught.

Gayford writes with sympathy not only about the two protagonists but also about the painter Emile Bernard and the largely absent figure of the art dealer Theo van Gogh, the artist's brother and benefactor, as well as a large cast of local friends, doctors, and so forth. He illustrates how certain public events, such as a celebrated murder in Paris, became entwined in the artists' consciousness. It is the extracts from correspondence that carry most weight, as well as the sensitive descriptions of the paintings.

Gayford's sober tone does not in itself always convey the febrile instability of the atmosphere, nor the creative frenzy Van Gogh experienced. The Yellow House is presumably seen as a biography rather than an art book, and the illustrations are somewhat limited: for the most part, monotone reproductions of the paintings and sketches and extracts from letters. It is a pity that the detailed written account could not have been accompanied by more photographs, like the evocative pictures of Van Gogh's friends the Rollin family, which might have added another layer of meaning to the story. But this is a remarkable subject, and admirers of the protagonists will find a great deal to enjoy in this thoughtful and well-researched study.

Giles Waterfield's new novel, 'Markham Thorpe', is published by Review in May