And there's absolutely nothing dishonest about dealing in good stones. One can believe in oneself when the thing one's selling is good. Now if, though, people like paste, they're at liberty to do so, and since they ask for it, well, one may keep it in stock.
But that isn't enough to feel one is oneself--with good paintings, though, one can feel one is oneself and be firm, because it's a pure error to think that there are as many as one wishes. Perhaps I express myself badly, but I've thought about it a lot lately, and calm has come to me about the Gauguin business.
All these Gauguins are good stones, and let's boldly be the dealers in Gauguins.
Milliet greets you warmly, I have his portrait now, with the red képi against an emerald background, and in this background the emblem of his regiment, the crescent and a 5-pointed star.
Good handshake and more soon, and thank you very much, and I hope your pains won't last. Have you seen a doctor again? Look after yourself, because physical pain is so annoying.
The text of Vincent van Gogh's letter on the verso of this drawing does not appear in the standard 1958 edition of the artist's letters, with the introduction by Vincent W. van Gogh. The present drawing and verso letter are now known to be the fifth and final page, signed "Vincent," of Letter 543 in that edition, replacing the concluding paragraphs that appear there, which actually belong to Letter 541a. These earlier errors have been fully reconciled and corrected in Vincent van Gogh: The Letters, The Complete Illustrated and Annotated Edition (2009; op. cit.). References in the following catalogue note correspond to this new edition, the contents of which are accessible online at vangoghletters.org.
* * *
While passing through the northern district of Arles to the outlying orchards in blossom which he was painting during the spring of 1888, Vincent van Gogh noticed a small house with faded and peeling yellow paint which appeared to be vacant. This two-story building at 2, place Lamartine, at the corner with the Avenue de Montmajour, was the right-hand pavilion of a larger structure; a grocer and his wife had their shop in the other pavilion, which was more spacious. Vincent enquired and looked inside. Apart from a stove there were no amenities; he was told he could use the toilet and bathroom in the hotel next door. The building looked dilapidated and appeared to have been vandalized. Vincent learned it had been unoccupied for some time.
Its poor condition notwithstanding, this small building appealed to Vincent, who since his arrival in Arles on 20 February had been staying at the Hôtel Restaurant Carrel on Rue Calvarie near the center of town, where he was paying five francs per day, then four, after haggling with the owner about being overcharged. The yellow house was for his purposes conveniently located; around the corner were the Café de la Gare and the Restaurant Venissac, and less than a couple of blocks to the north were the post office and the railway station, a major stop on the Paris-Lyon-Marseille line. The building's windows faced south, which offered the painter the year-round benefit of strong sunlight throughout the day, and looked upon a pleasant if unkempt park of paths, gardens and trees. It did not deter Vincent that the house was located on a noisy, dusty and well-trafficked corner, which had probably discouraged other potential tenants. For lack of other takers, the rent asked was a bargain, which mattered to Vincent most of all.
On 1 May, without consulting Theo, Vincent signed a five month lease with the landlady--the widow Venissac, who owned the nearby restaurant--for the building which would be known to posterity as La maison jaune--The Yellow House. That same day, Vincent wrote to Theo that he had just sent him a roll of small drawings, among which he would find--
...a hasty croquis on yellow paper, a lawn in the public garden at the entrance to the town [Faille, no. 1513; fig. 1]. And in the background a house more or less like this one [fig. 2]. Ah, well--today I rented the right-hand wing of this building, which contains 4 rooms, or more precisely, two, with two little rooms.
"It's painted yellow outside, whitewashed inside--in the full sunshine. I've rented it for 15 francs a month. Now what I'd like to do would be to furnish a room, the one on the first floor, to be able to sleep there. The studio, the store, will remain here for the whole of the campaign here in the south...
"I'll certainly make another drawing of it for you, better than the first croquis... I have one big worry fewer now that I've found the little white studio" (Letters, 2009, no. 602).
Vincent's newly rented quarters were unfurnished, and he did not at that moment possess the means (from the stipends Theo would send him) to acquire what he needed to begin living there full-time. The Yellow House moreover lacked gaslight illumination--gas pipes had not yet been installed in this part of Arles, but would be later that year--an essential requirement if the artist were to live at his new address and work at night. For these reasons, Vincent decided to keep his room at the Hôtel Carrel.
A week later, however, after a final acrimonious dispute with Carrel, Vincent decamped to the Café de la Gare at 30, place Lamartine, an all-night establishment run by Joseph Ginoux and his wife Marie. The cost of his room at chez les Ginoux was one franc per day; there he spent each night when he was in town until mid-September, eating there or at the Restaurant Venissac.
But until he could actually live in the Yellow House, its rooms would serve as his daytime studio and a place to store his paintings. On 27 May Vincent agreed with his landlady to contribute toward the cost of reversing the rundown appearance of the Yellow House by having the building repainted inside and out. This work was completed by 10 June, when Vincent paid out ten francs, his half of the bill.
Having a workplace of his own rekindled in Vincent's mind the dream of a "studio of the south," where painters from points north could come and work, or stop by while passing through to Marseille and on to North Africa. "I could live in the new studio with someone else," he wrote in the letter to Theo of 1 May, "and I'd very much like to. Perhaps Gauguin will come to the south."This was his first mention of the great hope he would nurture and cling to throughout the summer. On 28 or 29 May Vincent enclosed in correspondence to Theo the draft of a letter he addressed to Gauguin, which Theo subsequently forwarded on his brother's behalf:
"Wanted to write now to tell you I've just rented a four-room house here in Arles.
"And that it seems to me that if I find another painter who feels like getting the most out of the south, and who like me was sufficiently absorbed in his work to be able to resign himself to living like a monk who'd go to the brothel once a fortnight--apart from that, bound up in his work and not inclined to waste his time--then the thing would be good. On my own, I suffer a bit from this isolation... My brother can't send money to you in Brittany and at the same time money to me in Provence. But would you like to share with me here? Then by joining forces, there would perhaps be enough for two; I'm sure of it, even" (Letters, 2009, no. 616).
Vincent's thoughts about Gauguin that summer vacillated manically between the euphoria of rising hopes and then sulking resignation to the likelihood of disappointment. While waiting for Gauguin to decide what he was going to do, Vincent finally had the opportunity to furnish and move into the Yellow House. His uncle Vincent, known as "Cent," an erstwhile art dealer in The Hague and London, had died in July, leaving Theo a small legacy (the elder Vincent had deliberately excluded his namesake nephew from his will), of which Theo generously forwarded 300 francs to his brother in Arles. Vincent purchased two beds, mattresses, a dozen chairs and various household necessities, as well as two large potted plants to place outside his front door. Also among his purchases was a mirror, which he soon used to paint the self-portrait he sent to Gauguin (F476) in exchange for one of the latter's self-portraits (Wildenstein, no. 239; figs. 7 and 8).
During this time Vincent's block along Avenue de Montmajour was being excavated for the installation of gas pipes--it would soon be possible to have the Yellow House connected for gaslight, the last remaining obstacle to properly receiving Gauguin as his houseguest. For the time being he could get by with an oil lamp and candlelight. Vincent finally moved into the Yellow House, now not only his studio but also his home in Arles, on 17 September.
In his letter to Theo written on or around 29 September, of which the present drawing and verso manuscript text is the final leaf, Vincent had at least partly good news to report about Gauguin:
"Now I have a letter from Gauguin, who seems very sad and says he'll definitely come once he's made a sale, but still doesn't commit himself as to whether, if he had his fare paid, he would simply agree to untangle himself over there [in Pont-Aven]... But that I turn a dagger in his heart if I were to believe that he wouldn't come straightaway if he could. And furthermore, that if you could sell his canvases cheaply, he for one would be happy. I'll send you his letter with the reply. Certainly, his arrival would increase the importance of this venture of painting in the south by 100 per cent" (Letters, 2009, no. 691).
At the head of this letter Vincent mentions a "little croquis" he had enclosed showing a starry night over the Rhône (F1515; fig. 3), which he drew after the oil painting he had just completed (F474) as an illustration for Theo. He had also done a painting of the Yellow House, (F464; fig. 4)--his first treatment of the place since the drawings of the park he mentioned and the quick sketch of the building he incorporated in his letter of 1 May (Letters, 2009, no. 602; fig. 4). Vincent shortly thereafter executed the present drawing for inclusion in his letter of 29 September, in effect fulfilling the promise he had made in May to send Theo a drawing better than the sketch he had done at that time:
"Likewise croquis of a square no. 30 canvas showing the house and its surroundings under a sulphur sun, under a pure cobalt sky. That's a really difficult subject! But I want to conquer it for that very reason. Because it's tremendous, these yellow houses in the sunlight and then the incomparable freshness of the blue.
"All the ground's yellow, too. I'll send you another, better drawing of it than this croquis from memory [the present work], the house to the left is pink, with green shutters; the one that's shaded by a tree, that's the restaurant where I go to eat supper every day. My friend the postman lives at the bottom of the street on the left, between the two railway bridges...
"Milliet [a lieutenant in a Zouave regiment stationed in Arles whom Vincent had befriended and was teaching to draw] finds it horrible, but I don't need to tell you that when he says he can't understand that someone can enjoy doing such an ordinary grocer's shop, and such stiff, square houses with no charm at all... It does me good to do what's difficult" (Letters, 2009, no. 691).
As Vincent mentioned to Theo, he made the present drawing from memory, perhaps while sitting in the Café de la Gare, (the painting itself was in the Yellow House), which accounts for the differences between the two depictions. The drawing itself was in Vincent's vintage manner. "The graphic marks that Van Gogh used epitomised the drawing style he had forged in Arles," Prof. Ronald Pickvance observed in his essay for this drawing in the 2003 Christie's London sale catalogue. "He evolved a system of marks, varying from dots to energetic dashes, combining strong linearity with more abstract planes, often with a strong overriding logic. What he achieved on large sheets of Whatman paper he transferred to the few square centimetres of this letter-drawing" (sale cat., op. cit., 2003, p. 64).
Both the oil and drawing include the mounds of dirt that were churned up during the recent digging to lay gas pipes. A few days later, Vincent made another drawing of the Yellow House, as he said he would in his letter of 29 September, larger this time and with the addition of watercolor (F1413; fig. 5), but not showing the piles of dirt--perhaps they had been removed in the interim. He sent this version to Theo, because it would help him to "form an idea of the color" of the oil painting he had done of his Yellow House (Letters, 2009, no. 700).
If the present drawing was done at Ginoux's Café, the letter was likely written there as well. Prof. Pickvance surmised that Vincent was about to run out of writing paper as he approached the bottom of page four (the letter thus far had been written front and back on two sheets) and when after switching to a smaller, more cramped script proved to be an insufficient remedy, he turned to the drawing he had done of the Yellow House and finished his letter--as page five--on the back of that sheet, which he intended to send Theo anyway.
J.-B. de la Faille studied this drawing front and back when he catalogued it for his volume published in 1928. He did not know to which letter the verso manuscript belonged, and recorded only a single line from it, that in which Vincent referred to his recently completed portrait of Milliet (F473; fig. 6), including a little sketch of the lieutenant's star and crescent regimental emblem. The editors of the 1958 Letters compilation were consequently unaware that there was part of a letter, with a signature, on the back of this drawing. Vincent dated very few of his letters, and Theo kept those he received in bundles without their postmarked envelopes, stacks which later proved difficult to sort, occasionally resulting in mismatched pages. Prof. Pickvance drew attention to the fact that "four pages of LT548 [Letters 1958 ed.] actually belong to LT541a" (exh. cat., op. cit., 1984, p. 260), but this left LT548 without its concluding page and signature. It was only when the present work came to sale at Christie's London in 2003 did Prof. Pickvance have the opportunity to examine the sheet; he then concluded with certainty that it contained the missing, concluding passages of Letter 548 (1958 ed.; now no. 691 in the 2009 edition), "also providing it, at the end," he declared, "with Vincent's signature" (sale cat., op. cit., p. 65).
The passage which begins the letter text on the present sheet--"And there's absolutely nothing dishonest about dealing with good stones"--follows on an analogy Vincent had set up at the end of the preceding page, referring to the work of Gauguin:
"More and more I believe that we must believe that true and fair dealing in paintings is to follow one's taste, one's education looking at the masters, one's faith, in a word. It is no easier, I'm convinced, to make a good painting than to find a diamond or a pearl; it requires effort, and you stake your life as a dealer or an artist on it. So once you have good stones, it's important not to lack faith in yourself either, but boldly keep things at a certain price... There are no more good paintings than there are diamonds" (Letters, 2009, no. 691).
This drawing with letter text marks a significant moment during the early fall of 1888. Vincent felt increasingly certain Gauguin would come to Arles, although as he wrote in a letter to Theo 10 or 11 October not "until the end of the month" (Letters, 2009, no. 701). In a letter to Gauguin 17 October Vincent acknowledged his colleague's promise "to come as early the twentieth" (Letters, 2009, no. 706). In eager anticipation of this event, amid all his household preparations, Vincent was painting like a man possessed--as indeed he was, in his desire to impress Theo and especially, now, Gauguin as well. He wanted to decorate the Yellow House for Gauguin's imminent arrival with some of the finest paintings he had done during August, September and early October. Vincent had an abundance of riches from which to choose: The Night Café and the Café Terrace at Night (F463 and 467), The Park and The Poet's Garden scenes (F468, 470, 471 and 566); Oleanders and four of the Sunflowers (F406, 543, 459, 454, 593 and 594), the two portraits of the shepherd Escalier (F443-444), two portraits of the postman Roulin (F432-433), those of the painter Eugène Boch (F462) and the Zouave Milliet (F473; fig. 6), and finally, most poignantly, a "self-portrait" as his own bedroom in the Yellow House (F462). Having decided against an initial plan of hanging a simple decorative scheme of the sunflower canvases, Vincent proceeded to frame dozens of paintings and studies, and hung them in every room.
Theo helped broker a sale that enabled Gauguin to undertake the journey to Arles; in his letter to Theo 17 October (Letters, 2009, no. 707), Vincent reported that Gauguin had written, telling him he had already shipped his trunk. Then another all-important matter was resolved, for as Vincent mentioned in a letter to Theo 21 October: "I've had the gas put in, in the studio and the kitchen, which is costing me 25 francs for installation"--a timely measure, for he went on to state "G. may come any day now" (Letters, 2009, no. 709).
Gauguin did in fact arrive at the Arles railway station at 5 a.m. on 23 October. He stopped to rest at the Café de la Gare, where Joseph Ginoux immediately recognized him from the self-portrait (fig. 8) he had sent to Vincent. Gauguin waited for dawn, then walked around the corner to 2, place Lamartine, and knocked on the door of the Yellow House. Vincent opened it, and greeted his friend. It was surely one of the most exhilarating moments of Vincent's life. And one of the most fabled adventures in all the history of art had now begun to unfold.
Postcard of the Avenue de Montmajour, showing the Yellow House left of the corner with the Place Lamartine; postmarked 1906. BARCODE: 6296001
(fig. 1) Vincent van Gogh, Public Garden and Pond in Front of the Yellow House, 1888. Van Gogh Museum (Vincent van Gogh Foundation), Amsterdam. BARCODE: 6296711
(fig. 2) Vincent van Gogh, Letter 602, Arles, 1 May 1888. Van Gogh Museum (Vincent van Gogh Foundation), Amsterdam. BARCODE: 6296698
(fig. 3) Vincent van Gogh, La nuit étoilée sur le Rhône, Arles, September 1888. Private collection. BARCODE: 6295974
(fig. 4) Vincent van Gogh, La maison jaune ('La Rue'), September 1888. Van Gogh Museum (Vincent van Gogh Foundation), Amsterdam. BARCODE: 6295998
(fig. 5) Vincent van Gogh, The Yellow House ('The Street'), 1888. Van Gogh Museum (Vincent van Gogh Foundation), Amsterdam. BARCODE: 6297190
(fig. 6) Vincent van Gogh, Paul-Eugène Milliet ('The Lover'), September 1888. Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo. BARCODE: 6295981
(fig. 7) Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait, Dedicated to Gauguin, September 1888. Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. BARCODE: 28860174
(fig. 8) Paul Gauguin, Autoportrait (Les Misérables /dedicated à l'ami Vincent), 1888. Van Gogh Museum (Vincent van Gogh Foundation), Amsterdam. BARCODE: 28860181