Van Gogh is probably the most personal of artists. He captures aspects of his life as intimate as his worn-out shoes to his favorite chair to the view from his studio. Vincent also depicts the surrounding environment wherever he resided, whether the streets of Paris or the garden behind his father’s parsonage.
What better artist, then, to inspire you to take an art walk (or drive) in your own neighborhood. In my book, Through an Artist’s Eyes: Learning to Live Creatively, art walks are an integral part of the journey to art and a major way to incorporate the arts into your everyday life.
So why not go on an art walk with Van Gogh, stopping in front of his house, today immortalized as “The Yellow House” painted in Arles in September 1888. You might have had, like Vincent, the equivalent of a yellow house in your life. That special place and abode that for some reason is meaningful to you. You may be living in it now or moved from it a while ago, its memory remaining with you over the years. Or if you are fortunate, you have perhaps known a couple of yellow houses.
But for Van Gogh, who once described himself as a wanderer, “The Yellow House” was his only official residence, which he rented. For almost a decade as he tried to establish himself as an artist, Vincent had been moving on the average every two years, beginning in his native Holland where he lived in the Dutch city of the Hague as well as his minister father’s home in Nuenen. By 1886, he had joined his brother Theo in Paris, the latter being Vincent’s main support both psychologically and financially. Theo’s apartment was of course rent-free, located above the rest of the city in Montmartre, where the generous younger brother ran an art gallery.
Vincent’s lack of commercial success is legend: he only sold one painting his entire career. Ironically, Theo, the art dealer of the family, had trouble promoting the works of the artist he most loved. Theo, though, was the other half of a creative partnership resulting in what today are considered icons of Western art, including “The Potato Eaters,” The Sunflowers,” and “The Starry Night.” And Arles is where Vincent was most productive, executing some hundreds of paintings and drawings in just over a year.
Vincent’s living conditions in Arles were initially less than desirable. Abruptly leaving Paris in February, 1888, he headed for the south of France, hoping to discover an artistic paradise. Art historians have not agreed why he chose Arles as his destination, but he might have been influenced by his readings about the city.
Vincent, too, was hungry for spring, particularly after enduring the cold and dampness of the Parisian winter. However, when he got off the train at Arles, he was surprised by a late, if brief, winter snow. The weather changed quickly, but his accommodations remained unsatisfactory. He was stuck in what was for him an expensive hotel room that became crowded with Vincent’s mounting number of canvases. Masterpieces of blossoming orchards and sun filled fields reflecting the changing seasons that were far from appreciated by the artist’s landlord.
So that by May, Vincent, with Theo’s consultation, had rented his own house—a two story structure with four rooms—near the railroad station. At first Vincent used it solely as a studio, although he anticipated sharing it soon with his friend and colleague Paul Gauguin. The two of them, Vincent envisioned, would establish an artist’s colony of the South.
However, Gauguin was elusive, delaying his arrival, while Vincent prepared his beloved yellow house for his artistic comrade. Decorating what he hoped would be Gauguin’s bedroom on the top floor, with a couple of canvases of the now world famous sunflowers.
Finally, in September, Gauguin confirmed that he was truly going to join Van Gogh. So while Vincent waited, he started to settle into his new home, perhaps feeling a sense of security reflected in a growing interest in his local neighborhood. For instance, he created a series of landscapes of the park just across the street. One of them is “The Poet’s Garden: Public Park with Weeping Willow Tree” that he described in a letter to Theo of September 16.
There is a square size 30 canvas, a corner of a garden with weeping tree, grass, round clipped cedar shrubs, and oleander bush…there is a citron sky over everything, also the colors have the richness and intensity of autumn.
Other views of the park include “Entrance to the Park” and “Public Garden with a Couple and a Blue Fir Tree.”
Van Gogh, who had been focused before on the outskirts of the city—its farms and agricultural plain—seems comfortable in town. For also in his letter of September 16 to Theo, he refers to “Cafe Terrace at Night” at the Place du Forum not far from his house. In another letter, this time to his sister, he writes,
On the terrace, there are little figures of people drinking. A huge yellow lantern lights the terrace, the facade, the pavement, and even projects the light over the cobblestones of the street which takes on a violet pink tinge. The gables of the houses on a street that leads away under the blue sky studded with stars are dark blue, or violet, with a green tree.
Then, a few weeks later, Theo receives another letter, with sketches of two of Van Gogh’s most renowned works of art, “Starry Night over the Rhone” and “The Yellow House,” likely painted within days of each other. Vincent was creating at a fever pitch.
“Starry Night over the Rhone,” although a powerful composition based on its own merits, is also a forerunner of Vincent’s “The Starry Night,”done less than a year later,that has become a symbol of our age. Yet, Vincent informs Theo in his letter that this first starry night is a breakthrough actually painted by the newest technology of its day, a gas jet. He also adds:
The sky is aqaumarine, the water is royal blue, the ground is mauve. The town is blue and purple. The gas is yellow and the reflections are russet gold descending down to green-bronze. On the aquamarine field of the sky, the Great Bear is a sparkling green and pink, whose discreet paleness contrasts with the brutal gold of the gas. Two colorful figurines of lovers in the foreground.
Did Van Gogh consider “The Yellow House” and “Starry Night over the Rhone” a pair?
Although the times of day are different, in both cases, shades of blue and yellow dominate. For according to Vincent’s description of “The Yellow House” in the same letter:
…the house and its setting under a sulphur sun, under a pure cobalt sky. The theme is a hard one! But that is exactly why I want to conquer it. Because it is fantastic! These yellow houses in the sun and also the incomparable freshness of the blue. All the ground is yellow too.
In “The Yellow House,” the intensity of the contrasting colors, as in “Starry Night over the Rhone,” empowers the work, expressing Vincent’s emotional connection with the scene before him.
Yet, “The Yellow House” is incredibly detailed, the artist painstakingly recreating every window and door, even of the secondary buildings—a street front of a hotel and other businesses directly behind, receding into the distance. Even further back, are two railroad bridges, with a train spouting a cloud of white smoke, as it chugs toward the nearby station.
Of course, Vincent’s house stands out, freshly painted, with its striking green shutters and cream toned walls. Like a friend, greeting us, proud of its attire, especially when compared to the rather shabby exterior of its neglected sister building, a grocery. For the two structures are actually part of the same building, 2 Place Lamartine, but obviously have experienced different fates.
Across the street, appears to be a pedestrian walk and lamplight, probably leading to the park that inspired Vincent’s “The Poet’s Garden,””Entrance to the Park,” and “Public Garden with a Couple and a Blue Fir Tree.” A restaurant, where Vincent had dinner everyday, can also be seen, at the edge of the painting, on out left.
In addition, a ditch dug for a new gas pipe being installed (and eventually providing light to Vincent’s studio) extends from the park, down toward the railroad bridge.
An intriguing watercolor reportedly done after the painting (a practice the artist followed in another work, “The Night Cafe”), offers us an even clearer viewpoint. It may not have the passion of the painted version of “The Yellow House,” but it does have an appealing familiarity. The figures of the people, in particular, are larger and somehow more approachable.
However, before you take your walk (or drive), remember that Van Gogh was not the only artist to be inspired by his neighborhood. His countryman and predecessor, Vermeer, took a number of art walks in in his native Delft centuries before.
Other artists who captured their neighborhood include French master Manet (1832-1883) and twentieth century American Edward Hopper (1882-1967).
So have fun on your next walk and think of Vincent…and his other artistic companions!
The above images are used solely for educational purposes.