Subtitled "Van Gogh, Gauguin and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles," Martin Gayford's The Yellow House demonstrates both the strengths and the weaknesses of academic research. In this week-by-week chronicle of the two artists' lives, frequent concerns include coffee, tobacco, absinthe and "hygienic excursions" to the local brothels. But sometimes Gayford just seems to be emptying his notebook. The contents of the roommates' kitchen cabinets, autumn flooding in Provence, the local gendarmes' distrust of those two crazy painters -- Gayford can tell you all these things, but not why they matter.
On the other hand, it's fascinating to watch Vincent and Gauguin simultaneously paint the same subjects -- but from slightly different angles and with markedly different goals. Gauguin tended to abstract from what he saw; in contrast, "Vincent" (Gauguin didn't trouble himself with Dutch surnames) needed to paint what he was seeing at that moment, not work from sketches or from memory. Yet ironically, the wild wallpaper of Vincent's "La Berceuse" heralded the move toward the abstract in the art of Henri Matisse and others. (While the endpapers burst with yellow sunflowers, the other reproductions are, sadly, in black and white.)
While Vincent's bipolar upswings gave him great optimism, Gayford's conclusion creates page-turning suspense by leading up to one of Vincent's most depressive episodes. In a triumph of the researcher's eye for detail and informed speculation, Gayford interprets the ear-slicing as a mixture of religious mania (Vincent had been a preacher in his youth) operating on the Garden of Gethsemane story, a novel by Emile Zola, and the details of a Jack the Ripper crime scene. Vincent's presentation of his severed ear to a local prostitute was, in Gayford's view, a ritual of self-mortification, an attempt at being forgiven. Vincent was trying to escape his sadness.