The Yellow House: Sunflowers and a Sword

In Vincent, Theo and the Fox, the first place the fox visits on his adventure is Vincent van Gogh’s yellow house in Arles. In art history, this house was where van Gogh created some of his greatest paintings and experienced some of his worst tragedies. Today, we look deeper into this incredible painting.

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The fox ran to a village. He saw a yellow house and a restaurant. Boy was he hungry. The fox was young. That morning, he had left home determined to learn his way in the world. “I shall be like a human and eat in that restaurant,” he thought.

Vincent, Theo and the Fox is a story about Vincent van Gogh and growing up (for ages 4-10). It is illustrated with 30 of van Gogh’s paintings. Some readers want to know more about the paintings so, on Mondays, I blog about one or more of them.

When Van Gogh moved to Arles, he lived in temporary lodgings before finding the yellow house in May 1888. The house was two blocks from the Rhone river. There was a small grocery store next to the house (in the painting, the building to the left, with banner and awning). Vincent frequently ate at the pink-hued restaurant to the right. In a letter to his sister, van Gogh described the building as “painted in yellow colour of fresh butter on the outside…it stands in the full sunlight in a square which has a green garden…it is completely whitewashed inside, and the floor is made of red bricks. And over it there is the intensively blue sky. In this I can live and breath, meditate and paint.”

He rented four rooms. image019On the ground floor, he made two large rooms into his atelier (studio) and a kitchen. Upstairs, on the left was Vincent’s famous bedroom (in the painting above, the one with one green shutter open). The other room, with both shutters open in the painting, was a guest room.

The guest room was important to Vincent. He hoped to attract other artists to Arles and start an artists’ colony, a “studio of the south” as he termed it. He wanted painter Paul Gauguin to be the head of the colony. As Michael Prodger points out, the two artists made a very odd pair. Theo van Gogh brought the two men together. Theo was Gauguin’s art dealer and Vincent’s sole source of support; he thought it would be good for Gauguin to keep an eye on Vincent. Gauguin wanted to keep Theo as his dealer and wanted to save money on rent so that he could leave for Tahiti earlier.

work_25At first, Vincent was excited that Gauguin was going to join him in Arles. He proceeded to decorate the house, buying used furniture and making paintings for the dwelling, including four of his sunflower paintings. Today, with sunflowers such as the one on the left, used on greeting cards, it is hard to appreciate how beautiful, new and intense they were.

Unfortunately, the two men had contrasting personalities. After nine weeks they fought and, in the fight, van Gogh lost his ear. The popular story is that van Gogh cut off his own ear with a razor. However, in a 2009 study, two German art historians argue that Gauguin cut off the ear with a sword he always carried. The two men “kept a “pact of silence” – Gauguin to avoid prosecution and Van Gogh in a vain attempt to keep a friend with whom he was hopelessly infatuated.” The truth, of course, is buried in the past. Personally, given Gauguin’s narcissism, meanness, and treatment of underage women in Tahiti; I prefer to believe the account of the German scholars.

51jilwaqgyl-_sx313_bo1204203200_Two books about the time van Gogh and Gauguin were together may be of interest. For adults there is The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Provence by Martin Gayford.

512tkmkpg3l-_sx357_bo1204203200_For children, Susan Goldman Rubin (author) and Jos. A. Smith (illustrator) wrote a picture book called The Yellow House: Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin Side by Side. It was published in connection with the Art Institute of Chicago’s exhibit Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South. It is no longer in print. To find it you will have to go to the library or buy it used.

The real yellow house was bombed during World War II and no longer exists (although there is a placard there). The painting never left the artist’s estate and is on permanent loan to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

– Ted Macaluso

Ted Macaluso writes books for kids that make art more fun. Born in Brooklyn, he was a successful researcher on child nutrition and hunger before turning full-time to writing. His book, Vincent, Theo and the Fox, is a fictional adventure about the young Vincent van Gogh that teaches about growing up and learning from failure (for ages 4 – 10). He now lives in Reston, Virginia with his wife, son, and kind hearted dog. Find out more at tedmacaluso.com.

Text © 2016 by Ted Macaluso. May be freely reproduced provided attribution back to tedmacaluso.com is included. Uses affiliate links.

Landscape with the Chateau of Auvers at Sunset

Sunset is a time of transition and, like all transitions, it holds potential. Vincent’s ability to paint potential is part of what makes his art timeless, part of why he speaks to us today, and also why this painting coincides with an important transition in the story of Vincent, Theo and the Fox.

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“a night effect – two completely dark pear trees against yellowing sky with wheatfields, and in the violet background the castle encased in the dark greenery” – Vincent describing his painting in a letter to his brother Theo, June 24, 1890

I’ve wanted to write about this painting for a while as it is one of my personal favorites. For me, the effect is both peaceful and haunting. The painting’s emotional impact stems from the fact that sunset is a time of transition, of impending change. And, changes in state–day to night, land to sea, the pause turning to action–always grab me emotionally because they indicate potential: the “what might be” that we don’t quite know yet.

In the story of Vincent, Theo and the Fox, this painting marks the point where the fox has gotten to safety and the two brothers transition from exploring the world to returning home. But the painting also coincides with a transition in theme, for this is when Vincent and Theo start to reflect on their chase of the fox and what it taught them. It is at this point in the story that young readers experience what it feels like to think about how to be the best that you can be when you grow up (all while continuing to learn about van Gogh).

About the painting: it is a double-square painting that Vincent created in one day in the French village of Auvers-sur-Oise during the short months before his death. Did he know what was coming? I don’t think so, but many commenters believe that the 70 or so paintings he created in Auvers have an intensity that begs for such “significant” interpretation (see, for example, the interpretations of Wheatfield With Crows, another double-square painting from his time in Auvers, which I wrote about here).

I believe Vincent was “merely” in search of beauty. According to VincentInParis.com (a neat website and app that lets you geomap the location where van Gogh created his paintings so that you can visit them), today’s painting is one of three double-square paintings that Vincent wrote about to Theo. In Vincent’s mind, this painting is meant to hang between Undergrowth With Two Figures and Wheat Fields near Auvers. What unifies the three paintings are color and scale. (See them here.)

Auvers-sur-Oise, by the way, was a very pretty place that attracted a number of artists. Here is a view of the town painted by Paul Cezanne (courtesy of WikiArt.org):

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Finally, van Gogh’s time in Auvers was an important one. We will be writing more about it over the next few Painting Mondays as several other paintings from Vincent, Theo and the Fox were created there.

And oh yes, if you haven’t yet heard about the painted movie being made about van Gogh, the trailer for it starts with one of his Auvers paintings, the beautiful Landscape With Carriage and Train in the Background:

As I implied at the start, it is all about potential. Many of van Gogh’s works capture the essence of potential. It is why even today his work evolves in new ways without ever losing its magnificent beauty.

– Ted Macaluso

If you are unfamiliar with my book, Vincent, Theo and the Fox, it is a children’s picture book that weaves an adventure story around van Gogh’s paintings. While intended for children, adults find the book interesting too: it has full-color reproductions of over 30 of van Gogh’s masterpieces and the story gives readers new contexts for appreciating their favorite paintings. I write about one of the paintings every Monday for readers who want more information. See the book here.

© 2016 by Ted Macaluso. May be freely reproduced provided attribution back to http://www.tedmacaluso.com is given.

View of Roofs and Backs of Houses

How did van Gogh become van Gogh? The two years, from 1886 to 1888, which he spent living with his brother among the rooftops of Paris, marked his transition from somber dark to expressive color.

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On Mondays I write about one of the 30+ Vincent van Gogh paintings that illustrate the  book, Vincent, Theo and the Fox. Today’s painting, of the roofs of Paris, is important because it is among this landscape of zinc and slate that van Gogh’s artistic vision was transformed. Before arriving in Paris, his paintings were dark, steeped in the tradition of Dutch painters. Two years later, when he left Paris for the south of France, he was ready to master the explosive expressions of color that we see in many of his most beloved paintings.

With no advance warning, in February 1886, Vincent showed up at the door of his brother’s apartment in Paris, asking to move in. Vincent was broke; he had arrived from  Antwerp, Belgium where he was unable to pay his rent. Not surprisingly, the next two years were one of the very few times when Vincent and his brother Theo struggled to get along. However, the move was a good one for van Gogh’s artistic development.

Theo van Gogh, Vincent’s younger brother, lived in Montmartre, the artistic center of Paris. Two years earlier, in 1884, he had been promoted to work in the Paris headquarters of Goupil & Cie, at the time the leading art dealer in France. As Nina Siegal explains in her New York Times article, Becoming Vincent Van Gogh: The Paris Years, van Gogh “was immediately thrust into a milieu of young avant-garde artists experimenting with new styles.” Siegal explains more about the Parisian art scene in those years:

“Impressionists…were busy with their explorations of light and shadows. The Pointillists…were separating out colors into individual dots dabbed on canvas to form discernable figures. The Cloisonnists, meanwhile, were painting with bold and flat forms separated by dark outlines. Vincent…tried his hand at all of [these styles].”

Exposed to these influences, Vincent re-examined his ideas of painting. He met many of the notable Parisian painters during this period too, further inspiring his artistic growth. Read more in Siegal’s excellent and knowledgable piece, here.

From the start of van Gogh’s years in Paris to its end, the transition in his art is remarkable. For me, the two self-portraits below say it all. The one on the left is from 1886, just after he moved to Paris; the one on the right is from 1888, just before he left Paris and moved to Arles.

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Wow! I like both paintings. But it is the Vincent on the right who was ready to create such masterpieces as his sunflowers, wheat fields, and Starry Night!

(Many scholars have written about van Gogh’s Paris years. If interested, check out Van Gogh: The Life, a phenomenal book, or Becoming Van Gogh, a shorter piece in the New York Review of Books that displays images of his pre-Paris sketches and his post-Paris work. Van Gogh created 224 paintings in Paris, including a number of scenes of rooftops. You can find the complete list of them on vggallery.com, here.)

Finally, back to the roofs of Paris. Many artists, not just van Gogh, have been inspired by them. The Paris City Council is now asking UNESCO to designate their “unique” roofs a world heritage site. What do you think about the roof request? About van Gogh? About books intended to inspire children’s appreciation of great art? I would love to know and will read and respond to your comments with interest.

Ted Macaluso

If you are unfamiliar with my book, Vincent, Theo and the Fox, it is a children’s picture book/early reader that weaves an adventure story around van Gogh’s paintings. See it here.

© 2016 by Ted Macaluso. May be freely reproduced, provided attribution and a link back to tedmacaluso.com is included.