photograph of vincent van gogh, aged 18
painting by van gogh of the yellow house, arles, 1888

Vincent arrived in Arles on 21 February 1888 and took a room at the Hôtel-Restaurant Carrel. This was just a temporary home until he could find a house to rent, which he did in On 1 May when he signed a lease for the Yellow House at No. 2 Place Lamartine. The rooms were unfurnished and had been uninhabited for some time. Over the coming weeks, Vincent had the house painted yellow on the outside and then furnished the rooms and moved in. He soon settled into an artistic life in Arles and wrote to his brother, Theo, and others, about the town:

"The Zouaves, the brothels, the adorable little Arlesiennes going to their First Communion, the priest in his surplice, who looks like a dangerous rhinocerous, the people drinking absinthe, all seem to me creatures from another world". The Zouaves were men recruited as soldiers from the Berber tribe of North Africa, and Vincent did a number of works from certainly two of these soldiers. He did a portrait of a commissioned officer by the name of Lieutenant Milliet, something of an amateur artist himself who received art lessons from Vincent.

It’s amazing to think that Van Gogh was remembered by 113-year-old Jeanne Calment who, as a 13 year old, was serving in her uncle's shop where van Gogh would buy his materials from.  Jeanne Calment died in 1997, but described Vincent as—“dirty, badly dressed and disagreeable", and "very ugly, ungracious, impolite, sick”.One of the attractions for Vincent in his move to Arles was the excitement of working in such brilliant light, which was lacking in Northern Europe. One has only to look at one of his most iconic paintings done in Holland and finished in 1885, The Potato Eaters, which is done in very sombre colours to the paintings done later in Arles in 1888, which are filled with vibrant colour.Vincent’s other idea for moving to Arles was to set-up an artists’ colony so that artists could spend time together, sharing ideas and to try and make an artistic breakthrough, by which he meant to try and move to a new, modern artistic style – which, it can be argued, is precisely what happened with such paintings as the Sunflowers series.After months of cajoling he was joined in the Yellow House by fellow artist  Paul Gauguin (1843 – 1903) on October 23rd 1888. Vincent’s idea was that Gauguin was the first of what he hoped would be a constant flow of other artists. Gauguin’s artistic career wasn’t unlike Vincent’s; both had come late to art and both were mostly self-taught. One of the reasons why a reluctant Gauguin joined Vincent was because he was relying on his brother, Theo Van Gogh, to sell his paintings. The first weeks the two artists worked side by side, either out in the local landscape, or in the studio (one of the two downstairs rooms) in the Yellow House. But, given that both men were given to short tempers, it wasn’t long before the two began to quarrel, often over art and the direction that each artist should be taking. Vincent had always found it difficult to find friendships that would last; it was agreed by everyone who knew him, from his father to the people he met in the street, that he was an arguementive soul and one given to extreme mood swings and melancholia. While he made desperate attempts to remain on good terms with Gauguin, it’s well documented that things came to a head on a cold and drizzly night of December 23rd 1888. What precisely happened is not known, and there has been much speculation as to the “slicing off of Vincent’s ear” incident– or part of it of his ear.This is where my novel opens, the night of the violent quarrel with Gauguin, who (it is a known fact) did walk out of Vincent’s life and return to Paris. The two men never saw each other again. Eventually in 1891 Paul Gauguin would travel to Tahiti and later to the Marquesas Islands were he died alone and almost penniless in 1903 from syphilis. Like Van Gogh, it wasn’t until after his death that he would be finally recognised as a revolutionary artist and that his paintings would start to sell at high prices.After the events of December 23rd 1888, Vincent was admitted to the Saint-Remy asylum, near Arles. This was a very bad time for Vincent and when his madness took a great hold of him. He was under the supervision of the hospital’s director, Dr Peyron. But once he’d recovered sufficiently, he was again painting. Despite attempts to return to the Yellow House to pursue his painting, he found that the local population had largely turned against him. A petition was gathered and delivered to the town council in Arles, to the effect that Vincent be declared a “madman” and kept locked up. This saw the end of Vincent’s dream in establishing an artist’s colony in Arles. In May of 1890, it was arranged for Vincent to travel north, back to Paris, so that he could be near his now married brother, Theo, and who by now had become a father. Vincent was declared “cured” by Dr Peyron and everyone thought that Vincent was over the worse of his affliction. But Vincent was still a very lonely person; someone who had always desired a stable family home with a wife to greet him and children of his own; a desire now put into sharp focus by the fact that Theo, who had supported him throughout his life, now had such a family of his own. Vincent now feared that his only source of income, Theo’s generosity, might now end.After a short stay in Paris with his brother and his family, Vincent travelled to The small town of Auvers-sur-Oise, an hour’s travel by train from Paris. Here he was placed under the supervision of a local doctor, Dr. Gachet - himself something of a painter and collector of art. He owned paintings by some of the Impressionist, Pissarro and Cezanne. Vincent would even paint the portrait of Dr. Gachet and his family.      Vincent set himself up in a local inn, The Ravoux Inn, run by Gustave Ravoux.  

     These final days in Vincent’s life would be some of his most prolific. He worked at a terrific rate, out in the surrounding countryside or in a make-shift studio arranged for him at the inn. Vincent was convinced that he was curedand having finally enjoyed some success with a good sale of one of hispaintings, the future held much promise. Then, on Sunday July 27th, the final catastrophe. Something happened on that day that had Vincent take a gun to himself (though the gun was never found) in a suicide bid out in the very fields he’d only hours before had been painting in – the gun shot wasn’t immediately fatal and he staggered back to his room at the Ravoux’s inn. Dr Ratchet was called to attend him. It was decided to summon Theo from Paris, who came immediately. It was felt that Vincent would survive the gunshot wound, but the following day his condition deteriorated and in his small room he died in his brother’s arms in the early hours of July 29th. 

     But tragedy hadn’t finished with the Van Gogh family, and less than seven months later, Theo would also die, from the onset of tertiary syphilis.  

     Though it has been some one-hundred-and-twenty-three years since Vincent’s death, his legacy lives on. For many years his paintings sold for the highest prices of any art in the world. Much has been written about him, also feature films and countless documentaries made and his paintings in reproduction form are seen everywhere, especially his Sunflowers. Exhibitions featuring his work draw in large crowds and his Sunflowers painting in the National Gallery in London.

The novel opens with a prologue and the events in Arles, December 23rd 1888, the events of that evening and its consequences set the background for the novel. In chapter one the story then moves to the present day and to a South London care home, the Three Elms. Its owner, Gloria Mitchell, is facing bankruptcy. Several of the residents, led by former con-artist, Alfie Edwards, come up with a crazy plan to scam the art market with a fake painting of a lost Sunflowers painting, and the story then moves forward at a fast pace.

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Vincent Van Gogh, self portrait 1889, showing his wounded ear.
Vincent Van Gogh, aged 18
The Yellow House, Arles, where Van Gogh lived and the scene of their quarell and which led to the cutting off of Vincent's ear.
painting of van goghs bedroom, arles
painting by Van Gogh of his bedroom in Arles. In the novel, this is the scene of the attack on him which resulted in the slicing off of his left ear.
graves of theo and vincent vangogh
The two graves at Auvers where both Vincent and his brother Theo are burried.
leiutennant milliet, painting by van gogh 1888
Van Gogh's painting of Lieutenant Milliet, Arles, 1888
self portrait of vincent van gogh with bandaged ear

Vincent Van Gogh
30 March 1853 – 29 July 1890

When it comes to the history of European art, the name of Vincent Van Gogh features prominently. Few artists suffered for their art than did Vincent. As with his earlier passion, that of wanting to become a Christian preacher, his passion for art also became an obsession. It was only at the age of 27 that he took up art, mostly self-taught he struggled and suffered one set-back after another.

He became known as a painter whose work, though considered crude and unfinished by the standards of the day, did contain a lot of  emotional honesty  through the use of bold colour that would, after his early death in 1890, have a far-reaching influence on 20th-century art and the following generations of artists, including Picasso, Jackson Pollock and many more.
My novel opens with Van Gogh’s stay in the town of Arles, South of France in 1888. He’d gone to Arles for two reasons. One, to paint in a different light offered by its location close to the Mediterranean Sea and the vibrancy of the light, as opposed to the dull light further North. The second reason was that he wanted to set-up an artists’ colony where artists would come and band together. Like many things in Vincent’s life, this dream eluded him in the end and ended in catastrophe.


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