How much yellow can a person’s life contain? Arles in Provence is definitely the place where you can get your fill of yellow. The colour yellow is light, energy and vitality. Yellow regenerates, warms and stimulates you. Conversely, it can also arouse, blind and wound. Vincent has a visceral relationship with the colour yellow, a legacy of gloomy Northern Europe where he was born. Here, in the south of France where his brother Theo has sent him to find some peace, colours are arrogant, and none more so than yellow. Sunny-day yellow when painting outdoors, eternally-restless-sunflower yellow depicted on countless canvases, and even night yellow, in the moon and stars that suffocate the sky and cypresses. Then there is the yellow of the Yellow House overlooking Lamartine Square where Vincent has had a guest for a few days now. A guest who is unaware of the power of this colour. He is Paul Gauguin. Vincent has decided to hang his painting of sunflowers on his bedroom wall, a tribute to the colour that best represents him and with which he is seeking reconciliation. This may be a plea for help or only a warning: you do not play around with yellow.
“One may have a blazing hearth in one’s soul and yet no one ever came to sit by it. Passers-by see only a wisp of smoke from the chimney and continue on their way”. Nobody understands Vincent. The people who do not buy his paintings do not understand him, his brother Theo does not understand him, although he supports him financially and psychologically, the prostitutes in the brothel he visits do not understand him, even though they share his existential despair.
His friend Gauguin also did not understand him when one day he decided to portray him while bringing his sunflowers to life on canvas, underestimating the spark that would be ignited by the presence of yellow. It happened in a second.
The day had been spent outdoors painting in the sun. The Dutch painter had just tossed his straw hat to the ground, lain down on his bed and lit his pipe, thinking about what he had written to his friend Bernard the previous evening: “the most beautiful paintings are those which you dream about when you lie in bed smoking a pipe, but which you never paint.” He glanced around and then darkness, for a few minutes. By closing his eyes, even though the vibrant light still shone through, he tried to rest from the excessive exposure to yellow and to himself. Until a voice intruded in his thoughts. It was his friend, inviting him to view his portrait, the portrait that would trigger the ensuing tragedy.
A deafening noise rose up inside Van Gogh at the sight of that image of Vincent. Thus, paying no heed to reason, in a fit of rage dictated by his internal demon who demanded a sacrifice to save him he seized a razor and cut off a piece of his ear. He closed his eyes, but still saw an overbearing yellow. How could he free himself from this blinding light? How much yellow did his soul still have to withstand before he could finally find some shade? He raced out of the house after having wrapped up the piece of ear and headed towards the brothel, where he knew he could be comforted and understood. It was the prostitutes who called the police who eventually saved the painter. He had descended into a full-blown case of insanity. Some blame this on the lead in the pigments, others on his excessive consumption of nicotine and alcohol to keep himself going, others even attribute his madness to sunstroke and the wind in Provence. The real reason, if one has to find one, could have been that yellow nurtured his heart, soul and brain to the extent of burning up such a sensitive character.
On 27th July, 1889 Vincent Van Gogh went into a field and shot and seriously injured himself in the chest. He died two days later, assisted only by his brother Theo, and accompanied by his last comforting object before leaving this world, his pipe, which he smoked to the last day, lying down as usual. Then darkness, the real kind this time and finally his yellow-filled eyes and soul got some respite.