Gaugin and Van Gogh’s social networks: two of art’s supposed “great loners” were deeply social painters

Michael Prodger in New Humanist:

For nine weeks in late 1888, two of art’s great loners lived together. The home and studio Paul Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh shared was the small and unassuming “Yellow House”, just outside the northern city gate of Arles in the south of France. There was an imbalance to the arrangement. Van Gogh thought the older man, a painter he adulated, had arrived from Paris to help him realise his dream of creating an artists’ haven, a “studio in the south”; Gauguin was in fact paid by Theo van Gogh, a successful art dealer and the white sheep of the family, to act as painter-chaperone to his troubled brother.

Initially, the two artists revelled in the stimulation of close companionship: they painted together, drank together, discussed art together, and visited a local brothel together. However, companionability soon turned to conflict due to what Gauguin described as “incompatibility of temperament” and Vincent’s mental state assuming a dangerous edge. The day Van Gogh was hospitalised following the most celebrated act of self-mutilation in art, Gauguin left for Paris and eventually Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands. The two men never saw each other again.​

The painters have been viewed traditionally as men ill at ease in company and itchy with the constraints of society. In pursuit of personal freedom Gauguin left his Danish wife and five children and later France itself. Van Gogh meanwhile was the perpetual outsider, viewed with suspicion in his native Brabant in Holland; in the Borinage in Belgium, where he had a brief spell as a preacher; and in Arles, where his neighbours signed a petition to have the disturbed and disturbing painter removed from the city.

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