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A Response to ‘The Yellow House’


Martin Gayford - Freud yellow-house cover

Figure 1 & 2: A portrait by Lucien Freud of the author of the The Yellow House, Martin Gayford (titled: Man with a Blue Scarf; 2004), beside the cover of his book.



This article is not a review of Martin Gayford’s book The Yellow House. After considering the text; it is purely my reaction to the themes and subjects, which I found the most intriguing, at the time of reading it. For the record however, I appreciated the text for its largely different approach to the now well trodden subject of Van Gogh, Gauguin and their time spent together in Arles. What is ultimately an historical biographic, non-fiction piece of writing; he manages to tell a ‘story’ which stylistically meanders like any strong fictional novel would. I found his writing here both informative and moving.

With this brief introductory review now over, I will begin by defining my area of interest relating to The Yellow House and more specifically Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890). “Vincent’s” (following Gayford’s example this is how I will refer to him) state of mind is the primary theme of my article. I am interested in why psychologically damaged individuals - in this case Vincent - are drawn towards alcohol. By looking at this case depicted in The Yellow House, I will firstly give some relevant background into his life, his time in Arles in the Yellow House and his relationship with fellow artist and friend Paul Gauguin (1848 – 1903). Then I will explain why Vincent was/is the precise type of person this sort of alcohol related behaviour has the most damaging effects on, which proved to be the case for him.



Fig 3: Self-Portrait dedicated to Paul Gauguin (1888)


Paul Gauguin - Self Portrait_ Les Miserables Fig 4: Paul Gauguin’s Self-Portrait ‘Les Misérables’ (1888)


I. History & Religion

Vincent’s history is one of religious guilt brought on by his staunch protestant upbringing. In a time when the dooms day rituals were very much still ‘the order of the day’; he would probably have been preached to by ministers in the mould of John Knox and John Calvin[1]. During this time minsters such as these would have been describing their congregations as being ‘wretched sinners’ and other equally miserable sentiments. This is where the term ‘Bible Bashing’ comes from and was related to their forcefully aggressive approach to their sermons. The need to be ‘saved’ from all ones immoral vices and sinful pleasures was the sort of message being preached to people by the Protestant Church at this time and the sentiment would have been much the same during Vincent’s Christian upbringing in Holland, during the mid 18th century. The Dutch Protestant Church which followed the Calvinist teachings had developed a doctrine similar to Puritanism called Nadere Reformatie, where one applies principles set out by the Reformed faith in their everyday experiences of life. And Vincent, as the son of a Dutch minster from the Reformed Church - one Theodorus Van Gogh, would have undoubtedly been totally immersed in this Christian doctrine. Certainly by today’s standards this form of Christianity would have seemed orthodox.

We know from reading Gayford’s book that Vincent wanted to become a religious figure himself. Perhaps imposed on him by his Father, he trained to become a Pastor. He was clearly drawn to the church and would have spent a great deal of his early life learning from his religious education and reading the scriptures. However Vincent’s formal religious education was clearly not an area he excelled in and he was, in the eyes of some of the respected figures within the church, at odds with it. We know this because whilst training to become a Pastor he failed an exam in theology in 1877 whilst living with his uncle; and the following year failed a three month course at a Protestant missionary school near Brussels. His behaviour or ‘interpretation’ of the religious doctrine, whilst in a temporary post as a missionary in Borinage; Belgium, was ‘undermining the dignity of the Priesthood’ according to the ‘appalled’ church authorities there. They took umbrage at Vincent’s conscious decision to live like those he preached too. He lived in a hut, sleeping on straw at the back of the Baker’s house where he was supposed to be living at the time[2]. Gayford informs us that Vincent’s “boyhood had been spent in the village of Zundert in Southern Brabant, a rustic parish in which his father was Pastor to the few local adherents of the Dutch Reformed Church”. There his “father followed a reforming theological movement known as the Groningen School, which was comparable to the ethos known in Britain as ‘muscular Christianity’.” This approach to the Christian faith was in fitting with the principles of Nadere Reformatie, which was active around this time. Therefore according to Gayford, Vincent’s Father “consequently encouraged an active faith: doing good, not examining the soul. ‘Dare to live!’ exhorted one of his favourite poets, Reverend Petrus A. de Genestet. ‘Devoted and happy, fresh and early/Awake with the sun, stretch your hands to the plough in the great field!”[3] Vincent would utilise this truthful, honest, everyday characteristic of life in his art. Again from The Yellow House Gayford suggests this “sober truthfulness was also a very Dutch, and a very Protestant”[4] facet of his character.



Fig 5: An artists impression of the French theologian & pastor John Calvin


II. Vincent the ‘Profit’ & ‘Martyr’

He rejected this Religious path in favour of art, but it is clear that throughout his life Christianity - or his interpretation of Christianity at least - defined his thought process and much of the reasoning behind his actions. The now infamous cutting off of part of his left ear has been interpreted in many ways. Gayford’s own investigation into this takes a variety of views on it. Most of which have their foundations, rightly I would say, in a religiously defined base. His fascination and interpretation of the story of Christ’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane connect with Vincent’s own life and particularly his reasoning behind “his decision that he should leave the reformed prostitute Sien Hoornik and her two children in terms of the Agony in the Garden.” Gayford, whilst adapting Vincent’s own words, explains his judgement as implying that his “spiritual struggle was a more compelling subject than an erotic idyll.”[5] A vision of himself as a sort of religious Profit and then progressively as a Martyr figure is clear from his own words here: “an art that offers consolation for the broken-hearted! There are still just a few who feel it as you and I do!!!”[6] - He expressed these sentiments to Gauguin. There seems no doubt to me that from his actions and the way that he then depicts himself, Vincent viewed himself as a religious Martyr. One must only read this account of his life and times and view the imagery he paints - particularly the brilliant painting Self-Portrait with a Bandaged Ear (1889), produced after the ear severing incident - to recognise this view Vincent had of himself as Profit/Martyr and how faith, whether accepted or not by him, utterly consumed his thoughts. Contrary to what is often suggested about Vincent’s career he was starting to be acknowledged in his lifetime (however in terms of his mental stability this came all too late). Even during the latter stages of his life the legend of him as the mad inspired artist was already taking shape. Therefore this ‘portrait’ of “Vincent as a crazy saint and martyr that had first appeared in Gauguin’s mind that autumn in Arles”[7] would have given substance to this emerging claim. I believe this subject is impressively explored by Gayford and given context, factual reasoning and even gives plausible justification for this early mythical status.



Fig 6: Profit & Martyr?: Self-Portrait with a Bandaged Ear (1889)


III. His bond with the ‘Sister’s of Mercy’

As has been suggested by his religious and spiritual education, Vincent felt a deep bound with those he saw as the forgotten and desolate within the parts of society he came in contact with. A strong and constant bond, which he had with prostitutes, is the clearest example of this. As I have already alluded to Vincent had lived with Sien Hoornik (1850 – 1904) and her children for a couple of years when he lived in The Hague. She was a reformed prostitute, who was pregnant during this time. He clearly never had any moral issues with these women. In fact Vincent described them as the ‘Sisters of Mercy’ and deemed no religious conflicts with what they ultimately had to do to survive. In fact he identified with their struggles and saw them as providing a totally necessary ‘service’; one which both he and Gauguin frequently used. Gayford focuses on this area of his life in some detail and describes it in this way:

…Vincent felt sympathy for prostitutes as people. They were fellow misfits – just like painters, ‘exiled, outcast from society.’ The whore, he preached to Bernard, ‘is certainly our friend and sister’.[8]

The compassionate attitude he had towards prostitutes, took on a spiritual dimension - as seems to have been the case in most respects with Vincent. The ‘use’, necessity, and subsequent solidarity, that he had with these women is suitably defined in this passage:

For him (Vincent), too, it was a question of either having a wife, children and happy domestic life or following the vocation of the artist. To be a painter was similar to being a monk, with the exception that every couple of weeks you might go to the brothel in order to live a well-regulated, calm existence.[9]

It is clear that prostitutes provided Vincent (and other artists including Gauguin; certainly while he was in Arles anyway) with this very ‘existence’. Crucially this was not something that Vincent took for granted as he constantly acknowledged with fervour, their ‘contribution’ to his way of life as an artist.

Vincent identified with the under dog and definite parts of the under classes. His problems with ordinary society, with its conventions and judging tones, had made him a target. As a wholly different sort of individual altogether he stuck out and was dually bullied by local children during his time in Arles. This is briefly mentioned by Gayford in the book. I do believe that this victimisation - and in some senses even more pitiful and hurtful because it came from children - would have had a considerable affect on his erratic behaviour, as his fragile mental condition deteriorated into an eventual state of psychosis.


Sien Hoornik Sorrow

 Fig 7: Sorrow (1882), a drawing of Sien Hoornik by Van Gogh


IV. Gauguin

When Gauguin arrived at the Yellow House his role in Vincent’s life seemed to be one of inspiration and alternatively frustration; leading to Vincent’s demise into insanity. We know from reading this book that the productivity of both artists during this nine week period was nothing short of astounding. However two such different characters both being strong in their views and convictions - with one of them at least, in Gayford’s view, having a boarder line personality disorder - being constantly tested with excessive alcohol and poverty, was a situation which was never going to have a particularly happy ending and it proved to be the case.


Vincent at the Easel Fig 8: Painter of Sunflowers (1888), “gone mad” 


There are numerous examples in this book of the arguments and conflicts that take place between these two men. One of the most important, in my view, takes place after a discussion about Gauguin’s portrait of Vincent, which depicts him at the easel painting the now famous ‘Sunflowers’. Having had what was described as a ‘weak absinthe’ (almost all of Vincent’s major dramas seem to have taken place after alcohol had been consumed); how weak or otherwise the absinthe was seems to be up for debate. However after commenting that the painting looked like him, but him ‘gone mad’, they went out to the ‘café’ for a drink. Gauguin describes what happened next:

Suddenly he flung the glass and its contents at my head. I avoided the blow and taking him bodily in my arms, went out of the café across Place Victor Hugo. Not many minutes later Vincent found himself in bed where, in a few seconds, he was asleep, not to awaken until the morning. When he awoke, he said to me very calmly, ‘My dear Gauguin, I have a vague memory that I offended you last evening.’[10]

This low tolerance to alcohol is detailed in the book. However the episodes of Vincent having these sorts of alcohol induced blackouts, brought on by a variety of acute emotional and nervous reactions to certain situations, are several. This reaction to Gauguin was undoubtedly a culmination of the tension and various conflicts they were having at this time in their volatile relationship. On the subject Vincent stated, “Our arguments are terribly electric, we come out of them sometimes with our heads as exhausted as an electric battery after it has run down.”[11] The ‘energy’ that Vincent describes was evidently helping them produce work on a near unprecedented scale and as history has shown, of undisputable quality. Nevertheless Vincent was turning into a more and more unhinged individual. His problems, especially with ‘the drink’, had culminated in these violent and unsettling episodes, becoming increasingly more severe.

Another point of interest is the respect, and I would suggest love, that these two men had for one another. This is highly evident throughout their time spent together; with the hugely moving ending to the book helping to present this more than in any other section. It has been a while since a piece of writing had me genuinely moved, but I can openly say that this was the case whilst reading this passage. I consider these short passages the most indicative of this emotionally fuelled surmising of their unquestionable bond. Firstly when Vincent gets out of hospital after cutting part of his ear off and realises Gauguin has left Arles with his Brother Theo, his initial response is: “Tell Gauguin to write to me, and that I think about him all the time.”[12] Then later during this poignant period he wrote a message to Gauguin directly:

My dear friend Gauguin, I take the opportunity of my first outing from the hospital to write you a couple of words of my profound and sincere friendship. I have often thought of you in the hospital and even in full fever and relative weakness. [13]

It is clear, not just from this section, but throughout The Yellow House that Vincent quickly came to emotionally rely on Gauguin as a kind of paternal figure. The tragedy for poor Vincent is just how desperate he was for Gauguin to stay in Arles with him. Unfortunately it was his actions and disturbing behaviours which ultimately drove him away.

His love of Gauguin is clear in his words I just presented. However we can also see Gauguin’s affection for Vincent in this chapter; as certain melancholic sentiments of his show. Gayford explains the respect and fond memories Gauguin had of Vincent, which he depicts here, when he writes “:‘Scattered notes, without sequel, like dreams, and like life itself made up entirely of fragments.’ Under that, he wrote that several people had collaborated in ‘the love of beautiful things glimpsed in the house of the future’. He must have been thinking of the Yellow House and his erstwhile companion in Arles because, as an afterthought, he pasted a drawing by Vincent where he had originally written the title”… “Beside this, Gauguin wrote ‘du regretté Vincent van Gogh’ – ‘by the much-missed Vincent Van Gogh’.”[14]



Fig 9: Portrait of Theo Van Gogh (1887) by Vincent his brother


V. The Part Alcohol Played

The work they produced at this time, not in spite of their stormy relationship but I would suggest (as Gayford does) - because of it. It shows however that this outpouring of creative energy proved to be too much for the significantly fragile mental state of Vincent, and led to the ultimate and most finite of actions. The ‘hardened’, experienced and at times ‘world weary’ Gauguin was always going to use his time in the Yellow House to aid his own artistic journey. He would recover from all its traumatic episodes, which of course he should and I am personally glad he did; however poor Vincent’s mind never would. His psychological makeup - affected by an inability to ‘get over’ certain painful and traumatic experiences from his past - attached to his religious ‘imbalance’, volatile behaviour and accentuated by his drinking habits, would sow the seed for his eventual suicide. I feel that from my own knowledge and first hand experience of alcohol and certain reactions to it; that Vincent’s drinking was in actual fact the catalyst for his complete demise. I have seen it happen many times; where individuals who have psychological issues - of various levels of severity - are completely destroyed because of the seeming empowerment that alcohol gives them. This ‘empowerment’ often masks one problem they may have – shyness for instance – but in doing so magnifies their behaviour, frequently in an alarming or even a devastating way; as was the case with Vincent. When this does occur they will regularly cause real damage to themselves, others and their immediate environment. I completely agree with Gayford’s conclusions about Vincent’s mental health problems and the hereditary nature of them, however quite honestly I also think he should never have touched alcohol. If this had been the case I feel it is likely he would not have ended up killing himself. In my view, clearly a manic depressive; Vincent’s drinking was only ever going to send his emotional stability into a tailspin. In the case of absinthe, all I would say is: ‘what goes up, must come down’, and for someone with mental health problems such as Vincent, they could only have ‘come down’ in a major way. Through my interpretations, I feel that one cannot dismiss alcohol as being one of the key factors in this tragic tale. It was less a secondary and more a key factor in this demise. Obviously not the only reason for his death, but this factor, in my opinion is one which should take precedence when looking at the reasoning behind his suicide. I firmly believe this to be the case.

VI. Loneliness & The Part Alcohol Played con.

I take the viewpoint that Vincent’s fear of being alone was central to his disturbed outlook on life - which Gayford’s own descriptions on these fears, and inevitable ‘pull’ in the direction of fatal loneliness - has informed. Therefore my position that Vincent’s drinking played a significant role in his demise is given further credence by this fact. In this passage Gayford describes Vincent’s dread and torture at the feelings of being a lone and his need for companionship. These feelings of loneliness became too much for him towards the end of his life, when he had been hospitalised and his mental state was at its lowest point. Gayford comments on this terrible time for him in this way: “when alone in the fields, he was overwhelmed by a feeling of loneliness”; in Vincent’s own words: “to such a horrible extent that I shy away from going out.”[15]

Sadly, as is regularly the case with ‘bad drunks’, Vincent did end up alone. His erratic behaviour was brought on by alcohol. The one ‘medicine’ which seemingly gave enhanced self-belief actually destroyed him. Crucially as a consequence of it, it not only created a sense of isolation but actually made him lonely; as no one wanted to be near him because of its distressing effects. Therefore Vincent’s loneliness increased further and consequently his mental state and depressive nature deteriorated.



Fig 10: The Dance Hall (1888), crowds in unison



Fig 11: The Night Café (1888)


VII. The Art

I think however that his natural position as a marginal figure during his life made a dramatic effect on his art. Looking at Vincent’s work with this in mind, I certainly get a real sense of him as the ‘outsider’. He seems to be looking in at life from the peripheries and taking the viewpoint of a forlorn, isolated individual. The classic The Night Café (Le Café de nuit) and The Dance Hall (both painted in 1888 during his time in Arles) observe the crowds and other customers as being unidentifiable to us, giving the viewer the sensation of the lonesome spectator. Looking in, you do not feel part of their world at any time, yet through the unified appearance of movement created by brilliantly blurred colours, they are in unison with one another and appear as one. Vincent manages to convey a sense of detachment between us the viewer - or indeed him the artist - by setting these human subjects at a distance and by presenting them as largely anonymous figures. Arles certainly was not entirely ‘home’ to Vincent at any point during his time there and this is apparent in The Night Café. However a deeper emotive mood is created in the equally famous Van Gogh’s Chair and similarly in Gauguin’s Chair – again both painted around 1888 while in Arles - where absence, and Vincent’s greatest fear loneliness come rushing to the fore. These two observatory views engage with this notion of solitude, as is expressed in Gayford’s book. I see in them a man struggling with isolation; using objects as a displacement and means of summoning the memories of a friend now gone and the longing for an idyllic time where he was not alone. These images appear to be a ‘cold reflection’ of Vincent’s inner deepest feelings towards this friendship. The catalyst to paint these pictures must have come from a need to emotionally recall his fond memories of Gauguin, through the use and study of associatively emotive objects. The way Vincent chooses to represent himself and his friend, for me shows compassionate studies of how he viewed their bond, through their art and time spent together. They are both depicted clearly as different individuals but are held together by their commitment to the ultimate calling for them - their art. Vincent communicates this through treatment of subject matter, composition, tonal unity and his stylistic force.



Fig 12: Vincent’s Chair (1888)


Gauguin's chair

Fig 13: Gauguin’s Chair (1888)


VIII. Mental Health in the Family

As I have said already, I agree with Gayford that Vincent undoubtedly had some serious psychological issues, of which in chapter 12. The Aftermath particularly, he explains at length. These mental troubles (as it were) seem to have had a hereditary pattern too. Gayford describes this family trend of psychological problems here:

But evidently something had been ailing Vincent. Were there any clues? Well, whatever it was, other members of his family seemed to be afflicted by it. Vincent’s younger brother, Cornelius, migrated to South Africa and killed himself in a ‘fever’ in 1900. That same year, Wil – Vincent’s beloved younger sister, who was still living with her aged mother – started behaving oddly and expressing ‘bizarre ideas’.

She was admitted to a hospital in The Hague, then, in 1902, into another at Veldwijk in the area of Ermelo. There she stayed for the rest of her long life, at first angry and suicidal, later almost catatonic. She died on 17 May 1941, the last of Vincent’s siblings to survive. Theo also suffered – apart from the syphilis that killed him – from ‘melancholy’, or, as it was to be described in later years, depression.[16]

In fact where Theo is concerned, as Gayford puts it, he went ‘mad’. The syphilis had caused this (or perhaps if we take his family’s history in these matters into account, just encouraged it?). The diagnosis was “general paralysis of the insane, one of the most horrible symptoms of tertiary syphilis.”[17] He died on the 25th of January 1891, speechless and paralysed, at aged just thirty three.

IX. My Conclusions about Vincent

Before I proceed any further, I would just like to make it clear that as a consumer of alcohol myself and someone who enjoys its effects, I do not take this view because of any agenda and certainly not by one driven by an enforcement of sobriety. However, I feel from many years of witnessing the problems created by this, that there are misguided, commonly held perceptions of alcohol, it’s (mis-)uses and how it appears to me to be systematically utilised by those who clearly - for whatever reason - are unable to have anything close to a healthy ‘association’ with it. This position meant that I was unable to look at the case of Vincent Van Gogh without constantly having this in mind. In order to give some further context of my own personal views on matters of alcoholic self-medication: I have found it to be the case on numerous occasions; that decent and fundamentally good people who happen to be at best mentally weak and at worst bordering on insanity and positively suicidal (which more often than not does occur in these extreme cases), and everything in-between; regularly use alcohol or other substances to medicate themselves and shut out their inner woes. However I have also noticed that as these people find solace in a drug of choice; in doing so their external world is more and more affect by their behaviour whilst on these substances. In Vincent’s case strong alcohol, at first no doubt gave him a ‘boost’ of sorts, but also made fundamental changes to his ‘body chemistry’ – and in a profound way too. A shy and fairly quiet individual; he became an opinionated volatile and subsequently violent person who without the ability to look at his situation rationally began to radically alienate himself. Until his biggest fear loneliness simply became a more and more fatedly doomed reality. I have seen this happening in other people’s lives - Vincent is an all too common case and president here. As I say in my introduction, these kinds of individuals with all the problems they have already, are the very last people who should be medicating themselves like this. But because of these problems they are quite often drawn to this kind of - particularly for them - damaging lifestyle. I pose this question; are they (Vincent being the case and point) damaged because they use or do they use because they are damaged? I would say sadly both sides of this problem are true and this has become one of our time honoured examples of a ‘vicious cycle’.

As a society we seem to be drawn towards the celebratory position when great and often tragic figures like Vincent are concerned. The work he produced throughout his all too short career as a painter, and particularly during this explosive period in Arles is unquestionably remarkable. There is literally nothing I could say on this matter that has not been said on countless other occasions, by those far ‘greater’ than I. What I would say however is that Vincent’s demise and plunge into a state of madness and depression were completely inevitable. He needed help; and although economically essential and honourable, not just the kind of financial help he received from his brother Theo. The very close relationship Vincent had with Theo is touching, yet probably contributed to both their sad demises. No he needed proper psychological guidance. The times he spent in the asylum were clearly of no real use to him. A complex character like Vincent needed companionship and unfortunately not from the sort of people he was drawn towards. Gauguin who clearly had his own problems - with his estranged wife and child, his own identity and relationship with the art world and other artists, and his nomad type existence -made him the last sort of person Vincent should have gotten close to. Also Vincent’s understandable, yet badly judged, emotional (and physical) attraction towards other damaged ‘Souls’, particularly prostitutes and the world they inhabited: surrounded by alcohol, ‘uncertain’ and often risky situations; were only ever going to add to his woes.



 Fig 14: Vincent’s painting Still Life with Absinthe (1887)



For Vincent - a combination of mental frailty, bad judgement both in terms of the companionships he did fashion and the way he behaved, loneliness, lack of help from people ideally suited to provide this and crucially poverty, and the woes that this causes any individual trapped by it - make his eventual death at best, unsurprising. However in my view, what made this an inevitability is that when you pour large amounts of very strong alcohol all over these problems, the only outcome for poor Vincent Van Gogh was the infamous ending which has now become part of cultural folklore. The cutting off of his ear – has been re-interpreted and given an almost ‘biblical’ status - seems like the classic ‘call for help’; this call as we know was unanswered. Alas for Vincent, these calls very rarely are.

[1] John Knox (1514 – 1572) was a Scottish minister who led the Protestant Reformation against the Catholic Church during the 16th century.

John Calvin (1509 – 1564) - from which the term Calvinism comes from: an early form of Protestantism defined by a certain theological system - both these men played an integral role in the Protestant Reformation and aligned themselves with a practiced doctrine based on the repenting against ones naturally, preordained sins.

[2] Wikipedia entry on Vincent Van Gogh; Section 2.1 Early Life;

[3] Martin Gayford, ‘Collaboration’, The Yellow House, (London: Penguin Book: 2007), pp. 101-2

[4] Ibid p. 107

[5]‘Collaboration’, pp. 294-5

[6] Ibid pp. 284

[7] Martin Gayford, ‘Aftermath’, The Yellow House, (London: Penguin Book: 2007), p. 324

[8]‘Divisions’, p. 186

[9] Ibid p. 187

[10] Martin Gayford, ‘Portrait of the Artist’, The Yellow House, (London: Penguin Book: 2007), p. 259

[11]‘Looking at Art’, p. 267

[12]‘Aftermath’, p. 306

[13] Ibid p. 307

[14] Ibid p. 323

[15] Ibid p. 316

[16] Ibid p. 325

[17] Ibid p. 322


  1. Marton Gayford's book sounds like a must-read. But this is a very informative topline reading, thanks. I look forward to those moving passages.

    1. Thanks Mark, glad you enjoyed the piece. The Yellow House is worth a read, no doubt.
      Had a look at your blog today, sorry been too long since I have had a visited. Life has been a bit hectic recently. It was looking great as usual though. I am going to set aside some time to read properly and comment on posts tomorrow.





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