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23rd. December 1888

An inquiry into what really happened.

The only existing account we have of the final days of the Yellow House Studio, and it is totally unreliable, for it was written some 15 years after the event, and it was by Gauguin himself. Since we know that he was more interested in perpetuating the myth of Paul Gauguin than telling the truth, and there are so many discrepancies in his story, I felt that it would be interesting to re-examine the whole tale.

At the time he wrote this, Gauguin had just returned from his first trip to Tahiti, and was up against a rather hostile environment. Most of his former friends had seen through his posturing and wanted nothing more to do with him. Instead, they were actively promoting the works and the myth of Van Gogh, to the detriment of Gauguin's own work and reputation. His account below of those tense days must be read within this context.

Many interesting facts bearing on their time together have come to light in later days, such as the dreadful weather in Arles in December 1888, when it rained incessantly for three days, up to and including the day of the 23rd. The extra pressure put on the two artists, confined to the studio for days on end, with the cold dampness and constant noise of the rain must have added to the tensions already existing between them.

Here is Gauguin's account.

Avant et Apres

Paul Gauguin, January -- February 1903
Translated from the French by R. Harrison

For a long time I have wanted to write about Van Gogh, and I certainly will do so one fine day when I am in a better mood: for the moment, I intend to put down about him -- or, better, about us -- certain things that are relevant, to correct an error that has circulated in certain circles.

It is surely by chance that in the course of my life several men who have spent time in my company and with whom I've enjoyed discussions have gone insane.

This was the case with the two Van Gogh brothers, and some, from evil intentions, and others, from naiveté, have attributed their madness to my doing. Certainly, some people may have more or less of an influence over their friends, but that is a far cry from provoking madness. Long after the catastrophe, Vincent wrote me from the mental asylum where he was being treated:

"How fortunate you are to be in Paris! This is still where one can find the leading authorities, and certainly you should consult a specialist in order to cure you of madness." Aren't we all a little mad? The advice was good, that is why I did not follow it, from contrariness, no doubt.

The readers of the Mercure were able to read, in a letter of Vincent's published a few years ago, how insistent he was that I come to Arles to found, according to his idea, a studio of which I would be the director.

I was working at the time in Pont-Aven, in Brittany, and whether because the studies I had undertaken bound me to that place, or because by some vague instinct I foresaw something abnormal, I resisted for a long time, until the day when, won over by Vincent's sincere flights of friendship, I set out.

I arrived at Arles towards the end of night and awaited daybreak in an all-night café. The owner looked at me and cried: "It's you, his pal, I recognize you."1

A self-portrait that I had sent to Vincent explains this proprietor's exclamation. While showing him my portrait, Vincent had explained that it was of a pal who was to arrive soon.

Neither too early nor too late, I went to waken Vincent. The day was devoted to my settling in, to much chatting, to a bit of strolling to admire the beauties of Arles and the Arlésiennes (for whom, incidentally, I was unable to work up any enthusiasm).

Beginning the following day, we were at work, he continuing, and I, starting fresh. You should know that I never had the cerebral facility that others, without any trouble, find at the tip of their brushes. Those others get off the train, pick up their palette, and in no time at all set you down a sunlight effect. When it's dry, it goes to the Luxembourg and it's signed: Carolus-Duran.

I do not admire such painting, but I admire the man: he so sure, so tranquil! -- I so uncertain, so restless!

In every country, I need a period of incubation to learn each time the essence of the plants, the trees, of all of nature, in short -- so varied and so capricious, never wanting to let itself be divined or revealed.

So it was several weeks before I clearly sensed the sharp flavour of Arles and its environs. That did not prevent our working hard, especially Vincent. Between the two human beings, he and I, the one like a volcano and the other boiling as well, but inwardly. Some sort of conflict was bound to occur.

First of all, I was shocked to find a disorder everywhere and in every respect.2 His box of colours was barely big enough to contain all those squeezed tubes,3 which were never capped up, and despite all this disorder, all this mess, everything glowed on the canvas -- so his words did as well. Daudet, de Goncourt, the Bible fuelled the brain of this Dutchman. In Arles, the quays, the bridges, the boats, the entire Midi became another Holland for him. He even forgot how to write in Dutch4 and, as one could see from the publication of his letters to his brother, he always wrote in French only, and did so admirably, with no end of phrases like tant que and quant à.

Despite all my efforts to disentangle from that disordered brain a logical reasoning behind his critical opinions, I was unable to account for all the complete contradictions between his painting and his opinions. So that, for example, he had an unlimited admiration for Meissonier and a profound hatred for Ingres.5 Degas was his despair and Cézanne was nothing but a fraud. When thinking of Monticelli, he wept.

What angered him was to be forced to admit that I had great intelligence, although my forehead was too small, a sign of imbecility.6 In the midst of all this, a great tenderness, or rather, the altruism of the Gospel.

From the very first month, I saw our common finances taking on the same appearance of disorder. What to do? The situation was delicate as the cash box was being filled, only modestly, by his brother employed at Goupil's, and my share was paid through the exchange of paintings. The matter had to be broached, at the risk of offending his excessive sensitivity. So very cautiously and with quite a bit of coaxing, quite out of character for me, I bought up the question. I must admit, I succeeded far more easily than I had expected.7

In a box, so much for nocturnal hygienic outings, so much for tobacco, so much, too, for unseen expenses, including the rent. On top of it all, a piece of paper and a pencil to write down honestly what each took from this till. In another box, the balance of our resources, divided into four parts, for the cost of food each week. Our little restaurant was given up and, with the aid of a little gas stove, I did the cooking while Vincent, without going very far from the house, did the shopping.8 Once, however, Vincent wanted to make a soup, but I don't know how he mixed it -- no doubt like the colours on his paintings -- in any event, we couldn't eat it. And my Vincent exclaimed in laughter: "Tarascon! La casquette au père Daudet!"9

On the wall, with chalk, he wrote:

Je suis Saint esprit.
Je suis sain d'esprit!10

How long did we remain together? I couldn't say, having completely forgotten. Despite the rapidity with which the catastrophe arrived, despite the fever of working that had overtaken me, that whole time seemed like a century.11

Unbeknown to the public, two men had accomplished there a colossal amount of work, useful to them both -- perhaps to others. Some things bear fruit.

Vincent, at the moment when I arrived in Arles, was fully immersed in the Neo-Impressionist school, and he was floundering considerably,12 which was painful to him; the point is not that this school, like all schools, was bad, but that it did not correspond to his nature, which was so far from patient and so independent.

With all these yellows on violets, all this work in complementary colours -- disordered work on his part -- he only arrived at subdued, incomplete, and monotonous harmonies; the sound of the clarion was missing.

I undertook the task of enlightening him, which was easy for me, for I found a rich and fertile soil. 13 Like all natures that are original and marked with the stamp of personality, Vincent had no fear of his neighbour and was not stubborn.14

From that day on, my Van Gogh made astonishing progress: he seemed to catch a glimpse of all that was within him, and hence that whole series of sun after sun, throbbing with sun.15

Have you seen the portrait of the poet?

  1. The face and hair, chrome yellow.
  2. The clothing, chrome yellow.
  3. The tie, chrome yellow. With an emerald, green-emerald pin.
  4. On a background of chrome yellow.

This is what an Italian painter said to me and he added:

"Shit, shit, everything is yellow: I don't know what painting is any more!"

It would be idle to go into details of technique here. This is said only to inform you that Van Gogh, without losing one inch of his originality, gained a fruitful lesson from me. And each day he would thank me for it. And that is what he means when he writes to M. Aurier that he owes much to Paul Gauguin.16

When I arrived at Arles, Vincent was trying to find his way, whereas I, much older, was a mature man. 17 I do owe something to Vincent; namely, in the awareness of having been useful to him, the affirmation of my earlier ideas about painting. Moreover, for the recollection at difficult moments that there are those unhappier than oneself.

When I read this passage: "Gauguin's drawing somewhat recalls that of Van Gogh," I smile.

During the latter part of my stay, Vincent became excessively brusque and noisy, then silent. Several nights I surprised Vincent who, having risen, was standing over my bed.

To what can I attribute my awakening just at that moment?

Invariably it sufficed for me to say to him very gravely:

"What's the matter, Vincent?" for him to go back to bed without a word and to fall into a deep sleep.

I came upon the idea of doing his portrait while he painted18 the still life that he so loved -- some sunflowers. And, the portrait finished, he said to me: "That's me all right, but me gone mad."

That same evening, we went to the café: he took a light absinthe.

Suddenly he threw the glass and its contents at my head. I avoided the blow and, taking him bodily in my arms, left the café and crossed the Place Victor Hugo19; some minutes later, Vincent found himself in bed, where he fell asleep in a few seconds, not to awaken again until morning.20

When he awoke, he said to me very calmly:

"My dear Gauguin, I have a vague memory of having offended you last evening."

"I gladly forgive you with all my heart, but yesterday's scene could happen again, and if I were struck I might lose control of myself and strangle you. So permit me to write your brother and announce my return."21

My God, what a day!

When evening had arrived and I had quickly eaten my dinner, I felt the need to go out alone and take the air, scented with flowering laurels.22 I had already almost crossed the Place Victor Hugo, when I heard behind me a familiar short footstep, rapid and irregular.23 I turned just at the moment when Vincent rushed towards me, an open razor in his hand.24 My look at that moment must have been powerful indeed, for he stopped, and lowering his head, took off running in the direction of the house.25

Was I lax at that moment, and oughtn't I to have disarmed him and sought to calm him down? Often I have questioned my conscience, but I do not reproach myself at all.

Let him who will cast the stone at me.26

Only a short distance, and I was in a good hotel in Arles, where, after asking the time, I took a room and went to bed.27

Very agitated, I could not fall asleep until about three in the morning, and I awoke rather late, about seven-thirty.

Upon arriving at the square, I saw a large crowd assembled. Near our house, some gendarmes and a little gentleman in a bowler hat, who was the police commissioner.

Here is what happened.

Van Gogh returned to the house and, immediately, cut off his ear close to the head.28 He must have taken some time in stopping the hemorrhage, for the next day there were many wet towels scattered about on the floor tiles of the two rooms downstairs.

The blood had stained the two rooms and the little staircase that led up to our bedroom.

When he was in good enough condition to go out, his head covered up by a Basque beret pulled all the way down, he went straight to a house where, for want of a fellow-countrywoman, one can find a chance acquaintance, and gave the "sentry" his ear, carefully washed and enclosed in an envelope. "Here," he said, "a remembrance of me." Then he fled and returned home, where he went to bed and slept. He took the trouble, however, to close the shutters and to set a lighted lamp on a table near the window.29

Ten minutes later, the whole street given over to the filles de joie was in commotion and chattering about the event.

I had not the slightest inkling of all this when I appeared on the threshold of our house and the gentleman with the bowler hat said to me point-blank, in a more than severe tone:

"What have you done, sir, to your comrade? -- "I don't know." -- "Oh yes, . . . you know very well . . . he is dead."

I would not wish anyone such a moment, and it took me a few long minutes to be able to think clearly and repress the beating of my heart.

Anger, indignation, and grief as well, and the shame of all those gazes that were tearing my entire being to pieces suffocated me, and I stuttered when I said, "Alright, sir, let us go upstairs, and we can explain ourselves up there."30 In the bed, Vincent lay completely enveloped in the sheets, curled up like a dog's rear leg; he appeared lifeless. Gently, very gently, I touched the body, whose warmth surely announced life. For me it was as if I had regained all my powers of thought and energy.

Almost in a whisper, I said to the commissioner of police:

"Be so kind, sir, as to waken this man with great care and, if he asks for me, tell him that I have left for Paris. The sight of me could be fatal to him."31

I must avow that from this moment on the commissioner of police was as reasonable as possible and intelligently sent for a doctor and a carriage.

Once awake, Vincent asked for his comrade, his pipe, and his tobacco, and he even thought of asking for the box that was downstairs containing our money. A suspicion, without a doubt, that barely touched me, having already armed myself against all suffering.

Vincent was taken to the hospital where, upon arrival, his brain began to wander about again.

All the rest of it is known to everyone that it could be of interest to, and it would be useless to speak of it, were it not for the extreme suffering of a man who, cared for in a madhouse, at monthly intervals, regained his reason sufficiently to understand his condition and furiously paint the admirable paintings that we know.

The last letter that I had from him was dated Auvers, near Pontoise. He told me that he had hoped to recover enough to come to visit me in Brittany, but that now he was obliged to recognize the impossibility of a cure.

"Dear master (the only time that he had used this word), after having known you and caused you pain, it is more dignified to die in a good state of mind than in a degraded state."32

And he put a pistol shot in his stomach, 33 and it was not until a few hours later, lying in his bed and smoking his pipe, that he died having complete lucidity of mind, with love for his art, and without hatred for others.

In Les Monstres, Jean Dolent writes:

"When Gauguin says 'Vincent,' his voice is gentle."

Without knowing it, but having guessed it, Jean Dolent is right.

One knows why . . .

Notes:

  1. This must have been Joseph Michel Ginoux himself, at his Café de la Gare on the corner of Rue de la Gare and Place Lamartine.
  2. Eyewitness descriptions of Gauguin's studio in the Marquesas tell of a similar chaos.
  3. This is an unlikely state for Vincent's colours. He was always complaining to Theo that he had run out of paint.
  4. This is utter rubbish. All of Vincent's letters to his mother in 1888-90 were written in fluent Dutch.
  5. Nowhere in his letters does Vincent ever express anything but admiration for Ingres.
  6. According to Gauguin's military identification card, his forehead is described as "Normal." All the photographs show him with a perfectly normal brow. The only times he is depicted with a forehead "too small, a sign of imbecility" is in his own self-portraits; this is especially noticeable in the one he sent to Vincent.
  7. This is pure silliness on Gauguin's part. If he succeeded much easier than he thought, why say that he had any difficulty with Vincent's sensibilities?
  8. Since a grocery store was in the other half of the house, it was certainly not far.
  9. This reference is to the cap of the writer of the Tartarin stories, Daudet.
  10. Literally, "I am the Holy Spirit, I am of sound mind." For whatever reason, this seems to have struck a profound chord in Gauguin's mind, he even wrote it down in one of his sketchbooks. The material and the colours this saying was written in vary enormously in each telling, as does the location of it.
  11. Gauguin arrived in Arles on the morning of 22nd October 1888 and deserted his friend on 24th December of that year. This makes a total of 63 days.
  12. A quick glance at the catalogue of Vincent's work in Arles before mid-October 1888 will clearly demonstrate that he was hardly "floundering"!
  13. In fact, it would seem that Gauguin's insistence that Van Gogh "paint from memory " contributed to his breakdown. Certainly any influence of Gauguin on Van Gogh's painting was only transitory.
  14. Perhaps the only consistent character trait that Vincent exhibited throughout his life was a dogged stubbornness.
  15. This is again utter rubbish. The first series of Sunflower paintings were completed before Gauguin arrived in Arles, also most of the Views of Arles and the Wheat Fields and Sowers with their magnificent suns. The only paintings done during Gauguin's stay with suns in them were the two Sowers (F 450 & 451), the Red Vineyard (F 495), The Sower (F 575a), and one Sunflower copy, probably the "Yasuda" version (F 457).
  16. In the letter to Albert Aurier, 626a, his gratitude to Gauguin is nothing of the sort.
  17. Gauguin was 40 years old, Van Gogh was 35, only five years younger.
  18. It is impossible that sunflowers were still in bloom in November/December. The portrait he painted was most likely of Vincent making a copy of one of his existing sunflower paintings.
  19. There was no "Place Victor Hugo" in Arles. He meant Place Lamartine.
  20. If this can be accepted as true, then all the symptoms point to the fact that Vincent was dead drunk. Not much of a reason for fearing for your life, especially given Gauguin's experiences in life.
  21. This is the day of Vincent's self-mutilation, the 23rd December. Gauguin had already written at least once before to Theo that he was quitting, dated 12th December.
  22. Flowering laurels a few days before Xmas? In the rain?
  23. The roads and paths of Place Lamartine were just sandy soil, and since it had rained excessively for most of that week, were probably churned to mud.
  24. Soon after he got back to Paris, he described the incident to Bernard, and made no reference to any open razor. When Theo wrote to Johanna from Arles, he tells her the instrument used to cut the ear was a knife.
  25. It is unbelievable that we are asked to accept that a "powerful look" could stop a man bent on mayhem.
  26. Very well, Monsieur Gauguin, I will cast one. Can anyone believe that he could have been so utterly coldly indifferent not to have felt guilty afterwards?
  27. Why did he ask the time? Establishing an alibi? For what reason?
  28. Two points arise here. How did Gauguin know that he had "immediately" cut himself? And it was only the lobe of the ear, not the whole thing. The cause of the great blood loss was that "an artery" was severed as well, as Vincent wrote. Since it is extremely unlikely that anyone would survive a severed neck (cartoid) artery; he probably cut into the jugular vein, and was extremely fortunate to survive even this. Looking at the evidence of the wounds, it would appear that the cutting instrument was travelling downwards and inwards, through the ear lobe and into the neck; more like an attempt to cut his throat than to excise his ear.
  29. This is another bizarre detail, and if it is true, one has to ask how did Gauguin know this?
  30. How did Gauguin know that Van Gogh was upstairs?
  31. From this statement we see that Gauguin probably left immediately after sending a telegram to Theo, and did not even wait for him to arrive in Arles. From the foregoing scenario, it is Vincent who is shown as the aggressor, and it is impossible to understand the claim that "the sight of [Gauguin] could be fatal to him."
  32. This letter is conveniently lost. The tone of Vincent's later letters shows that he had lost much respect for Gauguin's abilities, and this appellation is extremely unlikely, and certainly undeserved.
  33. And here, Gauguin is claiming that Van Gogh committed suicide because he had caused Gauguin pain!

Summary.

That is the sum of all the information we have of this affair. Van Gogh never recovered his memory of the day, or at least he chose never to write it down. Joseph Roulin would have been the only other person to have any first-hand knowledge of what really happened in No. 2, Place Lamartine that day, but his information was never recorded. In the account that Gauguin gave to Bernard some time in January 1889, there was no mention of any throwing of alcohol. He said that Vincent chased him at night, no mention of any weapon. There was no justification for spending the night in a hotel in this earlier account, just the fact that Vincent was behaving in a bizarre fashion.

The most significant omission in "Avant et Apres" is the mention of a cutting from a newspaper that Vincent handed Gauguin the day of the "catastrophe," an account of a crime committed in Paris where "The murderer took flight." This phrase also struck some chord with Gauguin, for he recorded it on the same page of his sketchbook as the words in note 9 above.

We know from other sources that Vincent was aware of Gauguin's plans for an immediate departure, it was just a question of what day he would leave.

I strongly suspect that Gauguin was on his way to visit Rachel at the brothel that fateful night, and it was this that prompted Vincent's bizarre gift of his earlobe to her. Gauguin was still there with the girl when Van Gogh showed up, and the sanguinary present induced him to stay the night in a hotel.

Another, much less probable scenario could be suggested to fit the facts. As Gauguin said, "if I were struck I might lose control of myself and strangle you." Something happened between the two artists on the night of 23rd December, perhaps Vincent was driven into a rage during an argument, maybe over Rachel, and they physically grappled with one another downstairs. In the fracas, a knife or razor was used, and while struggling for possession of it Van Gogh's ear was cut. He fainted, and Gauguin, coming to his senses, put Vincent to bed, using a towel to try to stop the blood flow and then ran. This is how he knew of the lamp in the window and the fact that Vincent's body was upstairs. He had closed the shutters and lit the lamp before moving the body upstairs. Notice that while the downstairs rooms and staircase are described as being bloodstained, there is no mention of any in the bedroom. When Vincent recovered consciousness he saw that Gauguin had tried to save his life. Since Vincent chose not to accuse Gauguin afterwards, it would help to explain why Gauguin wrote of "[his] great tenderness, or rather, the altruism of the Gospel." But this is all a fanciful scenario, although perhaps no more inventive than Gauguin's own account.

Bob Harrison, Montreal 2002


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