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The Yellow House Frescos

By Bob Harrison

I would like to address the question: Did Vincent paint frescos on the walls of the Yellow House? The answer is, in my opinion, a most emphatic absolute yes. As noted in a letter from M. Gazanhes, a later tenant of the shop next door:
"The photograph is that of the shop (grocery) which my parents rented in 1924. It was represented, with the awning, by Vincent in his painting of the yellow house. Obviously nothing had been changed since 1889. At this time (1924) occasional tourists sometimes asked of my parents if, in the bedrooms, there were any traces of frescos. The walls were painted with whitewash. The flooring was of rough planks of wood, unwaxed. Notice the style of the window."

Indicates that a few visitors asked after the fact, even as early as 1928. The evidence for the presence of mural paintings is quite overwhelming, and I fail to see why certain experts can doubt their existence, simply because Vincent never mentioned them in his letters. Of course, most of these people are not artists themselves, and would perhaps never quite understand the siren call of a bare expanses of white walls…

Witness No.1: Pierre Borel, writing in the Mercure de France in 1921:

"He had had most of the house that he lived in painted in yellow. To a friend who asked what the reason was, Van Gogh explained that he had given his house the colour of the sun, "because he wanted it be a house of Light." Like Cézanne in his country house in Aix-en-Provence, the Dutch painter had covered the walls of the downstairs rooms, which served as a studio, with different frescos. His cleaning lady remembered having seen these paintings which, above all, represented landscapes of huge fields of sunflowers blazing in the sun, and two improbable nudes. He had also, on the doors of a big country-style wardrobe, two glowing sketches, traced with short vigorous brush strokes. With the aid of this simple art, sincere and impressive, the astonishing artist had transcribed there the essential traits of a southern landscape. Léo Lelée, the Arlésienne painter […] tried to recover these Van Gogh frescos. Beneath a series of dozens of coats of whitewash he found the paintings, but, because of the humidity of the walls, he found it impossible to uncover them completely, and they are at present somewhat worn away."
Not only that, but Borel goes on to tell us, referring to the testimony of an inhabitant of Arles named Jacques Bernier:
"Sometimes, during the days when there was too much rain or wind, Van Gogh went to sit in a little café where he painted the walls in the back of a billiard room, a very showy landscape with an incendiary sky which the habitués evidently didn’t understand, but which appeared to me of great beauty. The sky was of a heavenly blue and a garden where flourished row upon row of enormous sunflowers with the air of deep gold. This landscape disappeared after the death of the painter, like many other decorations that Van Gogh had amused himself painting in various locations in town."
Witness No.2: Louis Piérard, in "La Vie Tragique de Vincent Van Gogh" 1924:
"I have seen it, this famous "yellow room" where Vincent lived and painted so many canvases which are famous today. It is on the corner of the dusty Place Lamartine and Avenue Montmajour. […]
This is the room where he lived: a thick distemper today covers the frescoes with which he decorated the walls. Here and there, my penknife uncovered a little yellow, a heavenly blue...
[… ]In her charming way the old Arlésienne related it all to me. The only regret that she had is that they could not unveil the frescos of Van Gogh.
"You understand," she said to me, "we could have had paying visitors, like the palace of the popes in Avignon."
So, in these above testimonies, we find at least four people (the old lady, Vincent’s cleaning lady, Léo Lelée and Louis Piérard himself) who had actually seen these frescos, or at least traces of them, with their own eyes. Even if the old lady Piérard interviewed was not to be trusted, I think that Piérard’s testimony alone is enough to satisfy any question of their existence. He actually stood in the house. His penknife uncovered traces of blue and yellow paint on the walls of the house, under the layers of whitewash. Louis Piérard was an honest and scrupulous investigator into the life and work of Vincent van Gogh. The case, as they say, is closed.

As a final statement, it is worth noting that Gauguin and his associates decorated some of the walls of the Pension Gloanec in Pont-Aven in Brittany with murals in 1889.

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