Van Gogh in Paris
A Tale of Love, Art, and Anarchy
February 28, 1886
It’s an hour past final curtain, and all Montmartre is quiet. Amazingly. Quiet. There is no petrol-based traffic. No electric motors. No amplified sounds. Huge steam-powered locomotives and ships sit idle, almost two hours before boilers are fired and journeys begin. However, the silence is not complete. Animals are heard from time to time: cats, dogs, birds, and most commonly, the clip-clop of horses hooves on cobblestone. In addition, other outbursts may be heard which can startle and demand immediate attention. It is the human voice shouting. Usually, this falls into one of two categories, either incomprehensible ranting and raving from someone who’s had too much to drink, or specific accusations erupting from within a domestic quarrel. As Montmartre is the largest entertainment district of Paris, both situations occur more frequently than elsewhere and, not uncommonly, from the same location, the natural progression of one leading to the other.
Theo van Gogh is twenty-eight, handsome, and well-dressed. As manager of one of the most popular art galleries in the world, he feels obligated to keep in step with the proper fashion. Uncle Cent used to say, ‘To be successful, one must first look successful.’ Theo tries his best to follow Cent’s advice as this particular uncle was one of the founders of the company for which he now works.
The only area where Theo must compromise is housing. Because he is supporting his older brother Vincent, Theo is forced to live in a one-room apartment at 25 rue Laval. Still, he is able to gain maximum value from his dwelling as the location is just up the street from Le Chat Noir, one of the favourite gathering places of local artists. How better to keep abreast of all the latest news than to live in their neighborhood, eating and drinking with them? And his apartment is a convenient place for private showings of some of the more avant-garde works, too radical to be shown in a proper gallery.
Theo is sleeping, but it’s the kind of restless sleep you have when you’re wanting a special someone next to you. The person he is missing is Marie, his ‘mistress’, a twenty-year-old entertainer/bartender at the Folies-Bergere and one of the world’s first supermodels.
Theo would like her to stay on a full-time basis, but Marie is a modern Parisienne who thinks sex is different from love and has no qualms about having been the mistress of several men. And as much as Theo wants to be with her, how can a man ask a woman like Marie to move in with him when he argued long and passionately against Vincent when Vincent had been in the same situation three years earlier? He is resigned to knowing this is the only way he can have Marie in his life. He makes the best of it by saying how fashionable it is to have a mistress these days and how much cheaper it is when you don’t have to support one full-time.
Theo doesn’t approve of her current job, she makes more when she’s modeling, but as she’s been the subject of dozens of paintings, it’s almost impossible for Theo to find work for her. As the elder Pissarro commented, “Marie is beautiful, obviously, but her real talent is her incredible presence. An artist would give anything to capture that on canvas. But what happens when everyone wants to paint the same person? Not since Jesus have so many people wanted to paint the same person. The only difference is, in addition to painting Marie, all artists want to sleep with her, too!”
Marie knocks gently on Theo’s door trying to be considerate of the late hour and calls out as quietly as she can while still being heard.
"Theo, are you up?"
"Yes. Yes, of course." Theo puts on his pants and walks carefully until he opens a curtain to allow light from a gas streetlamp into the room. Opening the door, Theo apologises, “Sorry I wasn’t there for the walk home, I was just too tired."
"There is nothing to be sorry about."
Still feeling guilty, Theo tries to explain. "I had a late appointment and just couldn't drag myself out of bed. Are you all right? I worry so much."
"There is nothing to worry about. Everyone up at this hour is an old friend. But it would be easier if you could give me a key."
"You know I can’t do that. What if you lost it or got robbed and someone realised the key was to this apartment?" Waving his arm at the nearest wall, "You know how much these paintings would be worth?"
Marie gives a one-sided smile while laying a newspaper on the table, "Not much from the latest critique. But one day you will be proven to be right, and the world will recognise their beauty as you do. I know this to be true."
"You're the only beauty I recognise now."
"Oh, mon chou, you are sweet." Theo is rewarded with an embrace and affectionate kiss. She looks at a painting on the wall in which she is dancing while gazing down and away from her partner. "I think Pierre does a fair likeness." After a few more kisses, “Theo, mon chou, if I paint will you sell them for me?"
“I can’t sell Renoir and he makes some of the most likeable visions you could put on a wall. We’ve talked about this before. Bring me something, I’ll look at it, and we’ll see what we can do. It’s my job. It’s what I do, day in and day out. I can help, you just have to bring me something to look at."
Marie pouts, "Oh, I'm never satisfied with anything I do except for one or two, and I like those so much, I could never sell them. I need more time." Smiling and giving Theo multiple soft kisses, “Mon chou petit, a studio would be nice, too."
"You know I’m doing everything I can to get better accommodations by June when Vincent comes. He’ll have a studio. And you can use it whenever he’s not there. He paints outside every day, weather permitting. It can be all yours while he’s gone."
"What do we do when it rains?"
"There’s no law saying two people can’t paint in the same room, is there?"
Marie looks at one of Vincent’s paintings, a crude study of a skeleton, the skull smoking a cigarette. "I don't know. You say he is harmless?"
"Yes, of course. That’s just his sense of humour. He was in the clergy, for God's sake! All you have to do is not talk to him about religion, love, or art, and you’ll be fine.”
Marie looks skeptical, Theo continues, “You’ll see, it’ll be perfect! Which brings me around to a favour I need to ask of you. My late appointment today was with Paul Signac. He wants to use the apartment at 3, tomorrow, er, uh, this afternoon. Today. To show some paintings to an art critic before the next exhibition. Confidentially, to fully explain their new technique."
Marie has been searching in a drawer for one of Theo’s shirts and takes it behind a screen to undress, "Some of the new Impressionists’ works?"
Theo, watching her with interest, "Yes, probably some of the new works with the dots. He and Seurat are at the forefront of this, you know. Should be very exciting!” Smiling, "You know the best part? The money he’s giving me to use the apartment today will ensure we’ll be able to move into a bigger place in June when the lease expires! But I need your help to make it happen. I need you to be here later today, at noon, when the landlord, Dupree, has his nap to let the movers in with the paintings.”
“I plan on sleeping in, so it shouldn’t be a problem.”
Theo continues. “I won’t get out of Church in time to be back by then, let alone make my meeting at 1. All you have to do is let them in. I’ll be back as soon as I can. The main concern is that Dupree mustn’t find out what we’re doing, so they need to be as quiet as possible. If Dupree thinks we’re conducting business, he’ll raise the rent. I know he will. You know, he even asked about you the other day? As if a man can’t have a mistress over once in a while!"
Marie comes out from behind the screen. Theo’s shirt is an above-the-knee gown for her, with one bare shoulder. "Your landlord is a bourgeois pig! OK. Strictly hush-hush."
"They should be in and out in no time, at lunchtime. Noon, I told him."
Marie pouts, "Mon chou?"
Theo smiles, knowing another favor is about to be asked, "Yes?"
"Is it possible I could talk to Monsieur Signac about this new technique? I want to learn more about painting, oui?”
Theo embraces Marie, "You know, you could charm Monsieur de Paris, the guillotine operator."
"Oh, I don’t think so, but I like to charm you. Please?"
"I’ll do everything I can. Just remember me when you become famous and need a dealer."
"Mais oui, mon cher! You will be my number one dealer!"
They embrace and lie down.
Theo arises shortly after sunrise, puts on some trousers, washes, sits at his desk, and starts writing.
28 February 1886
My Dear Vincent,
It is with warm regards that I enclose 50 francs to use however you see fit. I have rented the apartment for a one man show today, at a fair price, and hereby pass on some of my good fortune to you. Too bad my landlord won’t accept some sort of permanent arrangement of this, as there is money to be made as long as there aren’t more galleries willing to display Impressionist works.
The more I think about your arrival here in June, the more I am coming around to it. By then, I will have secured a larger apartment with a proper studio. I can see where it will be most beneficial for all involved.
-More on this later.
Your last group of paintings found their way here with no damage and I believe I can see some improvement in the overall painterly qualities, better than the last lot. However, again, I must advise, you must lighten your palette. No one is interested in buying dull, drab, dreary. Please recall what we talked about with regard to what will sell and what you want to say. There has to be a way of accommodating both.
Your thoughts about making the painting come alive when viewed at a distance are completely in line with the Impressionists and, especially, the latest thoughts of Georges Seurat. He will have much to say at the next Impressionist’s exhibition which you will be able to study when you come in June. This, plus the study at Corman’s studio should be just what you need.
Keep faith in your art. It is with the first step that progress is made.
With a handshake in thought,
Theo puts the letter in an envelope, finishes dressing, and leaves for Church.
Marie is awake but still in bed when she hears someone knocking on the door. As she opens the door, before she can finish ‘Bonjour’, she is rendered speechless by the sight of a huge painting being held by four men.
"Bonjour, Madame! Just sign here." The crew manager smiles broadly at the sight of an attractive woman dressed only in a man’s shirt.
"Oh, God! It is so big!" Marie signs the form. "Do you think it will fit?"
With practiced modesty, "As someone who’s been asked that question many times, I can say if it is at all possible, we will find a way."
Marie ignores the manager’s crass remark.
The man, still amused at his cleverness, sticks his head through the doorway. "Should not be a problem. After we move the chair and put the other paintings against that wall, we can leave the ones on this wall where they are and lean it up over them. They’ll be fine."
The men come in, re-arrange things, and put the wall-sized painting in place. But their main attention is on Marie as she dresses behind a screen.
Startled when she steps out from the screen and sees them staring at her, she chides, "Most men are interested when a lady undresses."
One of the men uncovers the painting. Marie gasps as she recognises the painting, ‘A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte’. Done entirely in a myriad of coloured dots and lines, it depicts a crowded spring day on the banks of the Seine with everyone in their finest fashion.
"This is incredible! I have heard about this. It’s George Seurat’s masterpiece!"
"Don’t stare at it too long, Madame. Gerard has gone cross-eyed looking at all the dots!"
Gerard obliges and looks at her cross-eyed.
"Not really, but it makes a good joke, no? Do you like this? How good of a painter do you have to be to put little dots and lines on a canvas?"
Marie, unimpressed with the man’s remarks and still bothered by all of them watching her dress, "I don’t know. It’s the first time I’ve seen it. It’s big." Smiling, "I like big. I think we’re supposed to look at it from a distance." While opening the door, "Here, look at it from down the hall."
The manager and crew go outside the door and look back in. "Oui, oui, much better. When you step back, you don’t see the dots, and tres bon! The colours are so bright!"
Marie continues, "A little farther back." The men step back in unison. “A little farther... A little farther..." Again, and again, the men step back until one of them starts falling down the stairs. With a broad wave of her arm, she closes the door. "Bourgeois pigs.”
Marie walks back to have a closer look at the painting and its technique, "Monsieur Signac, what can you tell me about this painting?"
After a few minutes, Marie washes her face and leaves the apartment making sure to lock the door behind her.
At 12:20 Theo opens the door to his apartment and is positively gobsmacked by the sight of ‘La Grande Jatte’. "Goodness Gracious, Lord Who is Almighty!" He enters the room and closes the door for a closer look. Inspecting Seurat’s signature, "This is it! The one everyone is talking about!” Looking closely at the technique, “Truly amazing. The colours are…" He stands back as far as he can, but it’s not far enough. He tries to back up even farther by opening the door to look at it from the hallway. When he opens the door, Signac is reaching for the knob on the other side. They startle each other.
Theo shouts, "Good Lord… Paul!"
At the same time, Signac shouts, "Oh!” Then, alternating in quick succession, “Bonjour!” Excellent! Perfect! What do you think?"
"I was about to view it at a distance."
They both go from the door to the hallway.
"There. Impressive! It’s amazing!" Theo is overwhelmed.
Signac begins to explain. "It’s the deliberate separation of component colours to allow the final tone to be mixed in the eye. It creates a much cleaner image in the mind. Can’t you see it?"
"Amazing. Truly Amazing! At a distance you see the colour intended, but in reality, what’s on the canvas are dots of other colours you would normally mix together to make the final colour. What do you call it?"
"We think the best term is Chromoluminarism.”
Theo, as diplomatically as he can, “You know, I’m having trouble imagining Chromoluminarist on a business card. Would you be upset if someone else gave a name to it as they did for Impressionism.”
"You know, that may be a good idea. The Impressionists got a lot of attention when they embraced the comment from that critic.”
Walking back into the room, Theo looks around, wondering how long it will take to get his apartment back to normal. "This is just for today, right?"
"Signac smiles, "Right, right! It’s a one-man show just for a certain critic. This afternoon only!"
"One-man show, this is a one-painting show! I’ve never seen anything like it."
"No one has. It’s very scientific. Not only one has to choose the component colours exactly, but the size of the points of colour and how close or far away they are from each other determines how far one needs to be away to see exactly what the artist wants. And as we are expecting a lot of people to see it at the next Impressionist exhibition, it has to be this big for everyone to see at a distance. Otherwise, only a few people could see the effect, one at a time."
"Too bad my apartment is so small. You have to be outside the door to give it justice."
"I don’t mind. Makes it that much more dramatic when you first see it, when the door is opened."
"You can’t miss it, that’s for sure. Once again, the critic will be coming at 3 this afternoon, right?"
"Right. Now, most importantly, I must have absolute quiet while I explain this to him. I must have his undivided attention to make sure he can fully realise the significance of this. I may even ask you to leave the room to insure that nothing will distract him. Do you understand?"
"Of course, absolute quiet while the critic is here. At some point…" Before Theo could pose the possibility of Marie dropping in to ask about the technique, there is a knock at the door.
Upon opening the door a young boy announces, "Message for Monsieur Theo van Gwah!"
"That’s van Gogh", says Theo in his best Dutch pronunciation, correcting the boy.
"Oui, Message for Monsieur van Gock."
"No. Van Gogh."
“No. Van Gogh!”
Exasperated, the boy gives up, "Whatever you say, Monsieur, you have a message." The boy hands Theo a scrap of paper and continues holding out his opened hand, anticipating a tip. Theo’s eyes quickly scan the note. (vGM)
‘My dear Theo,
Don’t be cross with me that I’ve come all of a sudden. I’ve thought about it so much and I think we’ll save time this way. Will be at the Louvre from midday, or earlier if you like. A reply, please, to let me know when you could come to the Salle Carrée.
As for expenses, I repeat, it comes to the same thing. I have some money left, that goes without saying, and I want to talk to you before spending anything. We’ll sort things out, you’ll see. So get there as soon as possible. I shake your hand.
"Bad news, Theo?"
Theo sits on the edge of the bed. "Oh, dear God. No!”
"Someone has passed away, unexpectedly?"
"No. It’s worse! My brother, Vincent. He’s come early! He’s not supposed to be here until June!”
Theo flops back on the bed, his feet still on the floor. Holding the note up and reading it again, “He’s at the Louvre and wants me to pick him up as soon as possible! And this note is hours old!”
Looking at the boy with malice, “It’s already midday!"
The boy normally waits for a tip as long as it takes, but due to the fact he was delayed because he stopped for lunch, was unable to pronounce Theo’s last name, and now, Theo with the crazed look of a man at the end of his tether… It is too much. The boy runs away.
Signac makes an optimistic proposition, hoping to avoid any negative discussion during his meeting, “Monsieur, this is good news. Family is always welcome. And you don’t have to be here for the meeting. I tell you what, take this 20 francs. Go to Le Chat Noir. Have a nice catch-up!"
"You don’t understand. Vincent can’t be here until June, there isn’t enough room… My landlord will have a fit… I have a business appointment at 1… Meeting a friend for dinner… He doesn’t know about Marie…" Theo closes his eyes as tightly as possible, overwhelmed, and repeats the last sentence as if squeezing his eyelids together hard enough would make the situation go away, "He doesn’t know about Marie!"
Realising he also needs to talk to Signac about Marie, Theo rises on one elbow, "Uh, Marie, my uh, mistress... Do you mind if she comes to see this painting? She’s got the idea she wants to be a painter. It would be a great personal favor to me."
Signac accommodates, "Oui, oui. As long as it is before or after the critic is here. Again, he and I must be alone, so I can fully explain the significance of this work."
Theo stands, "Of course. Thank you, for trusting me to provide this service. For now, I must run. In case I don’t return in time, here’s a key. I know you’re a man of substance. I know you’ll be responsible for all my paintings, uh, wherever they are.” Theo stops to think for a second and grabs an extra hat and coat.
Signac is puzzled by the extra clothing.
As he takes the 20 franc note from Signac and is moving towards the door, Theo stops, attempting to explain, "My brother is, ah… Uh…” Momentarily rendered speechless trying to describe his brother in a few words, “I’m sorry, with Vincent there is no way to make a long story short. I must hurry."