Friday, August 21, 2015

Chapter Four: Vincent Van Gogh

Van Gogh and the Cats

An excerpt from Famous Artists Cats: The Book by David Stone and Deborah Julian

Not to suggest there weren’t any issues — with cats, there are always issues — but the few weeks Vincent Van Gogh shared with his cats in Arles may have been the most satisfying of his life.

The story of the painter and his cats is little known and seldom told. But the cats really liked Vincent as no one but his brother, Theo, ever did.

Van Gogh's Bedroom with Cats / © Deborah Julian
In 1888, sick and in danger of exceeding the limits of crazy acceptable for artists, Van Gogh packed up and left Paris for Arles. It is believed that he wanted to start a utopian art colony, but if that’s what he had in mind, why did he pressure Paul Gauguin to join him?

Van Gogh, described at the time as "dirty, badly dressed and disagreeable” by a shopkeepers daughter, clashed with almost everyone, and passionate Gauguin was imminently clash-ready.

If Van Gogh had stuck with his cats instead, he would not have had to fight to keep Gauguin’s friendship nor would he have cut off his ear and turned it over to their favorite brothel. But that’s wishful thinking, and to be honest, even with the cats, there were issues.

Local orphans, Georges, Sam and Guillaume adopted Van Gogh who was staying in a room that doubled as a gallery for his paintings. Not only did they love Vincent, with all the smells he brought home and dangling strings on his clothing, they gave him the easy companionship he seldom had anywhere else in his life. 

(In case his incredibly beautiful sunflowers created the wrong impression, you should know that even Van Gogh’s father was afraid of him and thought he should be committed to a sanatorium.) 

In Van Gogh’s Bedroom with Cats, you may not see the trouble right away. 

Van Gogh is the observer, returning from a long day of plein air painting and finding his cats happily asleep. Georges has curled pleasurably in the chair where Van Gogh usually sat to remove his shoes. 

Guillaume seems content, glancing up briefly from the only other chair to be sure the visitor is his beloved Van Gogh, and could any cat nap more pleasantly than Sam who has sprawled luxuriously across the painter’s bedspread?

Even as he wondered where he was supposed to sleep, Van Gogh noticed something else. The paintings on the wall above his bed were askew. 

Now, he understood. His cats, in his absence, no one around to dangle string or fetch cheese for them, had no choice but to bounce off the walls as they pursued each other in raucous play. 

Of course they’re exhausted, Van Gogh thought, stretching out on the floor, tucking his shoes under his head for a pillow. They had nothing to do but practice their hunting skills all day.

Wiped out himself, Van Gogh slept like an angel until just before dawn when Guillaume walked over to stand on him. Alerting the only member of the household with thumbs that breakfast was due was Guillaume’s responsibility. 

“You look tired,” Gauguin said, when he moved in a few weeks later.

His cats replaced by Gauguin, Van Gogh got to sleep in his bed again but never as peacefully.

You've been reading Famous Artists' Cats: The Book by David Stone and Deborah Julian. Want it? Click here to find out how.