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The Sunflowers and Paul Gauguin


The walls of the yellow house were soon covered with paintings inspired by Vincent’s Arles experience including the iconic sunflowers. Paul Gauguin was something of a celebrity in the modern art world. He was lured by the sunflowers, and moved to Arles and took up residence at the Yellow House on October 23rd, 1888.

Secrets of the Dead: Van Gogh’s Ear premieres Wednesday, December 14 at 10 p.m. on PBS (check local listings).


Narrator: The walls of the yellow house were soon covered with paintings inspired by his Arles experience.

They included a subject that would spawn some of the most iconic paintings the world has ever seen.

Meedendorp: Vincent made a series of flower still lifes in Arles in the summer of '88, when they were blooming.

What you see here is a whole arrangement of different shades of yellow, going from a sulfurous yellow, greenish yellow, to darker, ochre colors and every hue in between.

This was something completely new.

Narrator: Vincent wasn't just trying to push the boundaries of modern art; he was trying to create art that would attract other artists to join him, to realize his dream of an artists' colony in the south.

With the sunflowers, he had a very specific painter in mind--Paul Gauguin.

Unlike Vincent, Gauguin had already become something of a celebrity in the modern art world.

Vincent's brother Theo had put on a small exhibition of his work.

If Vincent could persuade Gauguin to come to Arles, it would be the start of his dreamed-of artistic brotherhood.

Meedendorp: He knew that Gauguin was interested in sunflowers, and he actually wrote to him that he decorated his room with the series of sunflowers.

Narrator: Whether Gauguin was lured by the sunflowers, by Vincent's promise that Arles was full of beautiful women, or by Theo paying for his move, on October 23, 1888, Gauguin took up residence at the yellow house.

Van Tilborgh: Gauguin was a man of the world, van Gogh wasn't; totally the opposite.

Gauguin might have been a bit arrogant, van Gogh might have been aggressive.

There were differences in character, but nevertheless, in principle, if you look at the total, I think they liked each other.

Narrator: Vincent now believed he had a soul mate, and his dream of an artistic commune was taking shape.

Was it possible that just two months later, he would have been capable of cutting off his ear?

Vincent never fully explained his self-inflicted violence, but he did paint himself immediately after.

Bernadette believes these portraits provide fascinating clues.

In the 'Bandaged Ear and Pipe,' you can see a bandage that goes under his neck and down into his body.

Underneath the bandage is a large piece of wadding, and the wadding is thick.

I talked to different doctors about his injury, and I explained the scenarios that it could have been a lobe, part of the lower part of the ear, the whole ear, or not the whole ear, and a doctor remarked, 'I believe that seriously you would need extra wadding,' which would imply the injury had been bigger than just the lobe.

Now, this made me think this lobe story is beginning to look less and less likely.


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