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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Brown

45. En route

Updated: Aug 23, 2021

Vincent van Gogh, Le Train bleu, 1888, Musée Rodin

Two men are on an overnight train to Paris at Christmas. They've both had a traumatic experience: one has found his housemate bathed in blood; the other has committed his brother to full-time psychiatric care, such as it was in 1888. The travelers know each other, but not well; they are still vous, not tu. They're business colleagues more than they are friends. This is the longest time they've ever spent together, and we can reckon that time to be 15 hours at least. The 1895 Baedeker Handbook for Travelers estimated about an hour and three-quarters from Arles to Avignon, then another six hours to Lyon, and then, Lyon to Paris--8 hours if they caught the fastest and most expensive train, and 17 if they caught the local. Traveling over Christmas and without booking ahead, it's hard to say for sure how long it would have taken. Settle, instead, for saying that however long the journey was, it likely seemed even longer.

The men are Paul Gauguin and Theo van Gogh. Their train pulled out of Arles at 7:30 on Christmas night. Gauguin had telegraphed Theo in the wee hours of December 24, saying that Vincent was "gravely ill" and needed his brother to come immediately. Gauguin and Vincent had quarreled and, as all the world now knows, Vincent had sliced off part of his ear. His blood covered the floor of the Yellow House, the house where he had hosted Gauguin since October, where he had hoped to found a Studio of the South comparable to the artists' colony in Pont-Aven. Gauguin had returned to the house late in the evening on December 23 to find a crowd gathered and police present. He had talked his way out of culpability for Vincent's state and sent a telegram to Theo van Gogh in Paris.

Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Doctor Félix Rey, 1889, location unknown

Theo took the overnight train on Christmas Eve to Arles, arriving mid-morning Christmas day. He went to the hospital, where Vincent had been placed in an isolation cell with padded walls. Theo sat with his brother for a few hours and spoke to the doctor on duty, Félix Rey. Rey, 23, was an intern at the hospital who did not yet have his medical diploma; he was researching urinary tract infections. Young Dr. Rey suggested to Theo that Vincent was simply overexcited and "would be himself again in a few days."

So Theo left. He had been in Arles for about 9 hours. Gauguin went with him, bringing his hastily packed trunk, his canvases, and three of Vincent's paintings as well. It was cheaper for them to travel together--sharing the cost of food and drink, of cabs once they got back to Paris, looking out for each other's bags while they took turns dozing. But beyond the immediate cost, there must have also been, in Gauguin's mind, a broader consideration of budget. Theo had been sending Gauguin a monthly allowance for the last six months. In addition to acting as his dealer, and selling his work, Theo had contributed to Gauguin's upkeep. It was money that Gauguin needed in order to keep himself in wine and canvases. It surely must have crossed his mind that, the Studio of the South experiment having failed so dramatically, Theo would reconsider his support. And that was something that Gauguin could not afford. When he boarded that train, Gauguin knew he had 450 miles to persuade Theo that he and his work were still a worthwhile investment.

As gallerist to the avant-garde, Theo van Gogh had no shortage of artists currying favor. It's not unimaginable that he could have distanced himself from Gauguin, seeing him as somehow contributing to Vincent's breakdown. After all, Vincent had started to spiral soon after Gauguin joined him. There were plenty of other experimental, difficult, penniless artists he could have fostered instead. Yet this is not what happened. The two men remained cordial and professionally connected. By mid-January Gauguin wrote to Vincent:

Not only were the two cordial, Theo had invited Gauguin to visit the rue Lepic apartment. Gauguin had weathered the crisis.

Theo had a housemate sharing rent that winter: another Dutch painter, Meijer de Haan. De Haan was a successful academic painter in Amsterdam with his own studio. He had come to Paris with one of his students, Joseph Jacob Isaacson, to learn the new styles while Gauguin was with Vincent in Arles. De Haan stayed with Theo until early February 1889, painting many of the same views as Vincent had painted during his time there, and meeting Theo's friends. Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, Toulouse-Lautrec, and others were all part of Theo's professional and social circle. And so too was Paul Gauguin. The connection between De Haan and Gauguin would last for most of the next two years, perhaps the most successful and stable partnership that Gauguin formed with another artist. In that partnership we will find the strongest link between Gauguin and Flowers and Fruit.

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