The Yellow House


November 28, 2001|By Susan Goldman Rubin

* Editor's note: Two legendary artists live and work side by side.

One day in the spring of 1888, Vincent van Gogh put on his straw hat, gathered his art supplies and went out to paint. Peach trees, irises and buttercups bloomed in the orchards and meadows. But Vincent's favorite was the sunflowers.

At the end of the day, when Vincent finished painting, he returned to his Yellow House. Because he had just recently moved to Arles, a town in the south of France, he had only a few friends.

Like many artists Vincent worked long hours by himself. But he missed the company of other people, especially artists who could discuss painting. He hoped that warm, sunny Arles would attract fellow painters to join him.

In Paris the year before, Vincent had met many painters. The ones he most admired were the Impressionists. Fascinated with how natural light, times of day and weather affect the way things look, they inspired him to change the colors of his paintings from browns, blacks and grays to much brighter shades of blue, pink and green. The Impressionists also helped him learn to paint exactly what he saw with his own eyes -- boats on the river, the countryside, flowers and people.

But another artist, Paul Gauguin, particularly impressed Vincent because he was doing something entirely different. Paul painted pictures from his imagination -- feelings, fantasies and dreams. Paul was far away in Brittany, in the northern part of France. "Perhaps Gauguin will come south," Vincent wrote his brother, Theo. He thought this was a good idea. The two artists could spend a year together in Arles and work side by side. Theo sent Paul a letter inviting him to join Vincent in the Yellow House. Paul accepted the invitation.

On Oct. 23, 1888, Paul arrived in Arles. Vincent was delighted! The weather was perfect, so the two artists set out to paint right away.

Like Vincent, Paul quickly realized that the sun was hotter and brighter in the south than it was in Paris or Brittany. The colors of the sky, the buildings and the flowers glowed vividly. Even the people looked different! Thrilled at what they saw, Vincent and Paul felt inspired to paint.

But each man went about it in his own way. Although Vincent and Paul shared their art supplies -- charcoal, paints and canvases -- they used them differently. Vincent liked to load his brush with lots of paint and put it on the canvas in dots and dashes.

Paul painted more slowly than Vincent. He loved nature, too, but he would wait and dream about what he saw before he started to make a picture. He did not squeeze paint straight out of the tubes onto the canvas like Vincent sometimes did. Instead Paul blended the paints on his palette, making new colors that matched his dreams. He spread the paints smoothly in careful shapes.

Vincent and Paul spent many evenings discussing the best way to paint. Often their discussions developed into quarrels. But they did agree that they could learn from each other. Paul told Vincent to try painting something he saw only in his imagination, not in real life. Vincent imagined his mother and sister in a garden back home in Holland. He picked colors that he thought expressed their personalities and used small dots of paint. The painting was an experiment for him.

He did not like this imaginary garden as much as the real garden in front of the Yellow House.

Paul then painted a garden. Maybe he felt it was easier to teach Vincent by showing him rather than telling him how he worked. In Paul's painting, there are four women coming down a curved path alongside grass and plants. The picture has a mysterious mood. A red fence blocks the way. A large green bush seems to have a face.

Living and working together turned out to be difficult for the two artists. They clashed in many ways. Vincent was messy and careless. Paul was neat and organized. Vincent talked all the time, while Paul stayed quiet.

By December, Paul wrote to Theo that he wanted to return to Paris.

Although they never met face to face again, Vincent and Paul exchanged letters. Through their letters, Vincent and Paul continued to encourage each other. The pictures they made during the two months they lived together in the Yellow House are some of the most important and beautiful of their careers. Working side by side, the artists inspired and challenged each other. Today the paintings still glow with their emotion and energy.

Reprinted from THE YELLOW HOUSE by Susan Goldman Rubin. Text copyright c 2001 Susan Goldman Rubin. Illustrations copyright c 2001 Jos. A. Smith. Published by Harry N. Abrams Inc., New York. All rights reserved.

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