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Van Gogh on Gauguin


From a letter written second half of December, 1888:

“Gauguin and I discuss Delacroix, Rembrandt, etc., a great deal. The debate is exceedingly electric, and sometimes when we finish our minds are as drained as an electric battery after discharge…

“In case you think that Gauguin or I get down to work effortlessly, let me tell you that work does not always come easily to us. And my wish for our Dutch friends, and for you as well, is that they should feel no more discouraged by their difficulties than we do.”

After months of urging, Gauguin finally joined Van Gogh in Arles in October, 1888. Van Gogh had dreamed for years about an artists’ colony, a utopian dream that may have carried over from the few years when he attempted to become a Christian minister working with the poor. Van Gogh seems to have thought of this as a way for artists to share living and painting expenses, to exhibit together, and to exchange ideas in a collegiate atmosphere. Unfortunately, Van Gogh’s own mental instability and Gauguin’s iron-willed opportunism were hardly likely to make their time together in Arles a success. It’s clear from the above quotation that their arguments provoked ill-feeling, and on December 23, 1888, Van Gogh wrote the following letter to his brother Theo:

“I think that Gauguin was a little disenchanted with the good town of Arles, the little yellow house where we work, and above all with me.
“Indeed, there are serious problems to overcome here still, for him as well as for me.
“But these problems lie more in ourselves than anywhere else.
“In short, I think that he’ll either simply leave or he’ll simply stay.
“I’ve told him to think it over and weigh up the pros and cons before doing anything.
“Gauguin is very strong, very creative, but he needs peace precisely because of that.
“Will he find it elsewhere if he doesn’t find it here?
“I await his decision with absolute equanimity.”

That last sentence was clearly untrue, because on the evening of that same day, December 23rd, Van Gogh threatened Gauguin with a razor. Gauguin decided not to spend the night in the Yellow House. At about eleven that night, Van Gogh went to a brothel, asked for a prostitute named Rachel, and handed her a package, saying, ‘Here, take good care of this.’ He left, and when Rachel opened the paper, she found a piece of Van Gogh’s earlobe. Gauguin immediately left for Paris. Van Gogh was taken to a hospital to recover from his blood loss. This terrible episode marked the beginning of the cycle of manic depressive attacks and periods of institutionalization that culminated in Van Gogh’s suicide, nineteen months later.

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