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.

The Lover and The Poet in Van Gogh’s Bedroom

Vincent van Gogh hung two paintings in his bedroom: a portrait of a lover and one of a poet. What can these two artworks tell us about his life?

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On Mondays, I write about one of the paintings that illustrate my picture book,  Vincent, Theo and the Fox, which is an adventure story about Vincent van Gogh for ages 4 and up. These posts are primarily for parents and older children interested in learning more about van Gogh’s artwork and life. Today’s painting, The Lover (Portrait of Milliet, Second Lieutenant of the Zouaves), appears two-thirds of the way through the tale. As young Vincent and Theo are returning home from their adventure, Vincent thinks about what he might become when he grows up. In my book, Vincent thinks about eight possible occupations. Today’s painting illustrates one of the seven possibilities–“being a lieutenant in a distant army”–that Vincent considers before thinking about being the  painter he would become.

The painting itself is interesting for at least two reasons. First, the portrait is about someone significant to van Gogh. In 1888, Paul-Eugène Milliet became one of van Gogh’s few friends in Arles. He became Vincent’s painting and drinking companion. A soldier with an interest in art, Milliet took drawing lessons from van Gogh and the two went on painting forays together. At one point, he was entrusted with 36 of van Gogh’s works to carry to Paris and give to van Gogh’s brother, Theo. When he returned, he hauled home Japanese woodcuts for Vincent from Theo.

But why did van Gogh want to paint Milliet’s portrait?  It was not because they were drinking buddies or teacher and pupil; he wanted to do the portrait because Milliet appeared to be the epitome of a lover in van Gogh’s eyes. Writing to Theo, van Gogh explained that he wanted to paint Milliet “because he’s good-looking, very jaunty, very easy-going in his appearance, and he’d suit me down to the ground for a painting of lovers.”

Van Gogh’s relationships with women were difficult, to say the least. His life was full of unrequited love, setbacks, and rejections. He admired Milliet’s romantic escapades. Van Gogh wrote his brother, Theo, that “Milliet’s lucky, he has all the Arlésiennes he wants, but there you are, he can’t paint them, and if he was a painter he wouldn’t have any.” [For your consideration, here are two scholarly books about van Gogh’s relationships with women: Van Gogh and Love by Hans Luijten and Van Gogh’s Women: His Love Affairs and a Journey into Madness by Derek Fell.]

But, back to the painting. The second reason why it is interesting is that it is one of the two paintings Vincent hung over his bed. You can see it in the first version of Vincent’s famous paintings of his bedroom. In the first version, Vincent painted his actual room, with the portrait of Milliet and another of Eugene Boch. In the second (shown below) and the third versions, the portraits are replaced by two different pairs of a self portrait and an  imagined women. Interestingly, there are always two pillows on Vincent’s bed, suggesting that the artist did not want to be alone.

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One has to wonder what Vincent felt. His admiration of Milliet as the epitome of a lover, the portrait’s placement in his bedroom, and his inadequate experiences with women, combine to make me think of Foreigner’s haunting lyrics:

In my life there’s been heartache and pain
I don’t know if I can face it again
Can’t stop now, I’ve traveled so far, to change this lonely life

I want to know what love is, I want you to show me
I want to feel what love is, I know you can show me

Foreigner – I Want To Know What Love Is Lyrics | MetroLyrics

Vincent, according to the Van Gogh Museum, eventually accepted that he was unlucky in love and turned to his ‘requited loves’ – art, nature and his brother Theo. Still, I wish he could have found a women with whom he could have known a deep and satisfying love.

Several artists have recorded “I Want To Know What Love Is.” Here is Mariah Carey’s beautiful 2009 performance:

The appearance of the gospel choir near the end of Carey’s performance is both true to the original song and important as we think about van Gogh. Mick Jones was interviewed after writing the hit song. In it, he reflected that, while the lyrics started on a personal level, he “ended up putting a gospel choir on it. And you know, realized suddenly that I’d written almost a spiritual song, almost a gospel song.” And spirituality brings us back to van Gogh’s bedroom and the second painting on his wall.

portrait-of-eugene-boch-1888largeThe second painting. Vincent’s painting, The Poet: Eugène Boch (right), was also on the wall of his bedroom. In a letter to his brother, van Gogh said, “I should like to paint the portrait of a fellow artist who dreams great dreams.” The artist was thinking of both love and infinity: “I would like to convey in the picture my appreciation, the love that I have for him.  […] Behind his head, instead of painting the ordinary wall of this shabby apartment, I will paint infinity, I will do a simple background of the richest blue, the most intense blue that I can create, and through this simple combination of the bright head against this rich, blue background, I will obtain a mysterious effect, like a star in the depths of an azure sky.”

Vincent was always seeking a connection to the infinite and the spiritual; his work is infused with those themes. I find comfort in knowing that–no matter how his relationships with women went–in his bedroom Vincent also found love in the broadest–indeed, infinite–sense.

I would love to know what you think–leave a comment below if you want.

– Ted Macaluso

Note: There will not be a Painting Mondays post next week as I am going on vacation. I know this may be hard for some, but have faith: the blog will return in two weeks.

If you haven’t yet seen Vincent, Theo and the Fox, you can check it out here.

 

Lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Universal Music Publishing Group. All other text © 2016 by Ted Macaluso. May be freely reproduced provided attribution to http://www.tedmacaluso.com is included.

Vincent’s Bedroom

Vincent van Gogh’s colorful bedroom is probably one of the most famous bedrooms in art. Did you know that there is not just one painting, but three? The Art Institute of Chicago tells us why.

Vincent, Theo and the Fox weaves a story around 31 of van Gogh’s paintings. Readers also want information about each painting. Every Monday we post about one painting in the book. Todays painting is Vincent’s bedroom in Arles.

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Vincent van Gogh loved the painting so much he actually made three versions. The Art Institute of Chicago has an upcoming exhibition that will bring all three versions together for the first time. The exhibition will run from February 14 to May 8 0f 2016. Using digital technology, it will show the subtle differences between the three paintings. The exhibition promises to explain the significance of the three paintings and how they relate to an important theme in van Gogh’s work, the idea of home.

This exhibition is the first to truly delve into the fascinating history of these three paintings. Beginning with Van Gogh’s early canvases of cottages and birds’ nests, the show explores the artist’s use of the motif of home—as haven, creative chamber, and physical reality—and follows the evolution of this theme throughout his career… Source: Art Institute Chicago: Member Magazine, January/February 2016, p. 13

You can find out more on the Art Institute’s website. The Art Institute is one of the world’s great museums. Go if you can. (A big thanks to Duke Ryan, author of Amanda’s Autobiography, for telling me about the exhibit.)

Finally, whether or not you can go to the exhibition, check out this intriguing video from mjkooopman about Vincent’s bedroom:

And why are there three paintings of his room? According to the Art Institute, water damage threatened the stability of the original painting. About a year later, therefore, van Gogh made a second full-size painting of his room so that he could ensure that the image would be perserved. A few weeks after that, he made a smaller, third painting as a gift for his mother and sister. Van Gogh’s artistic investment in the image of his room in Arles gives credence to the Art Institute’s interpretation that the three paintings exemplify van Gogh’s “relentless pursuit of home.”

The painting of Vincent’s bedroom appears about halfway through the story of Vincent, Theo and the Fox. If you haven’t yet read the book, you can check it out here.

text © 2016 by Ted Macaluso

 

 

 

 

 

 

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