Vincent and Paul: artists at war

In the troubled life of Vincent Van Gogh, his friendship with Paul Gauguin gave him hope that he would one day be able to establish in artists’ colony where he could live and work with other artists. When Gaugin returned from his painting trip to Martinique in November 1887, he found representation and a buyer for his paintings in Van Gogh’s brother Theo. Van Gogh was deeply affected by the vibrancy of Gauguin’s paintings and he determined to leave Paris and bring his dream of starting an artist colony into reality. In February 1888 Van Gogh moved to Arles. An innocent abroad, Vincente experienced Arles as an exotic place,

‘The Zouaves, the brothels, the adorable little Arlésienne going to her First Communion, the priest in his surplice, who looks like a dangerous rhinoceros, the people drinking absinthe, all seem to me creatures from another world.’

This turned out to be the most prolific time in Van Gogh’s life, he painted over two hundred paintings and a hundred watercolours and drawings. Van Gogh wrote to Gauguin encouraging him to come and stay with him, and finally, on 23rd of October 1888 Gauguin arrived.

Vincent 30th March 1853. 11:00. Zundert, Holand.

Van Gogh was born in Holland, to a chilly, highly religious mother. He struggled to find his place in life as an art dealer, a priest and finally as an artist. He was a lonely, awkward person who found it hard to relate to people and was difficult to be around.

‘A great fire burns within me, but no one stops to warm themselves at it, and passersby only see a wisp of smoke.’

His long suffering brother Theo, who stood by him through his vicissitudes described living with Van Gogh as ‘almost unbearable’.

At first glance, it is hard to reconcile his astrology with his reputation. Cancer rising may give great sensitivity, or touchiness, but generally these natives are gentle and warm, which cannot really be a description of Van Gogh by all accounts but may explain his need for companionship or people to lean on or take care of him. He wrote this in a letter,

‘It is good to love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is well done.’

His Moon Jupiter conjunction in Sagittarius suggests a warm, sunny, optimistic nature, his religious or spiritual interests and as Jupiter rules his midheaven, religious parents. The Moon, Jupiter are square the Venus, Mars conjunction in Pisces which is on the Midheaven or his career (and a parent). Van Gogh was sent away to school as a seven year old child, even though he begged his parents not to, they then sent him to a middle school where he was very unhappy. He described his childhood as ‘austere, cold and sterile’. Perhaps being a sensitive child, seeing himself rejected and unloved broke his spirit in some deep way. In his eleventh house of hopes and wishes and also his peers, Van Gogh had a Pluto, Uranus and Saturn conjunction in Taurus, which does describe his relationships with other artists, who he tried to get on with, but rarely did.

‘What am I in the eyes of most people, a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person who has no position in society and never will; in short, the lowest of the low. All right then, even if that were absolutely true, then I would one day like, to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobodyhas in his heart.’

Gauguin, on the other hand, was blessed with a more robust constitution. He too, had a Uranus, Pluto conjunction but in feisty Aries in the ninth house, showing his pioneering art (Aries) overseas (9th house). His Leo Ascendant would give him a boldness and charm that Van Gogh lacked.

Paul Gauguin.7th June 1848. 10:00. Paris. France.

So what was their mutual attraction or synastry? Gauguin’s Uranus, Pluto conjunct was on Van Gogh’s feisty and impatient Mercury in Aries in the tenth house. So there would have been an attraction, or two forward looking painters, but also a combustible and erratic and angry communication. We can see how Gauguin inspired (Uranus) Van Gogh’s career and self-expression (Mercury in the 10th). Generally, with strong synastry we would expect to see a Saturn contact, and indeed, Gauguin’s Saturn at 24’ Pisces is conjunct Van Gogh’s MC (his career) and his Mars, Venus conjunction in Pisces. Pisces and its co-ruler Neptune, gives great aesthetic sensibility. Van Gogh with the conjunction on his MC and Gauguin has Neptune in Pisces conjunct his descendant and opposite his Moon suggests they would both be creative people. But Saturn in Pisces has no dignity (Peregrine) and often shows a dissolute nature (negative Pisces) and compulsive behaviour (Saturn). And indeed, Gauguin was a man of dissolute nature. In a letter in on the 1st or 2nd November 1888, Van Gogh wrote,

‘We’re in the presence of an unspoiled creature with the instincts of a wild beast. With Gauguin, blood and sex have the edge over ambition. [He was] more amorous and benevolent [than] the decadent and exhausted Parisian man-about-town’

The last major synastry was Gauguin’s Jupiter was conjunct Van Gogh’s Cancer Ascendant at 21’ Cancer. Gaugin opened the wide world (Jupiter) to the undeveloped man that was Van Gogh (Cancer).

Van Gogh wrote in the same letter, ‘we’ve made some excursions in the brothels, and it’s likely that we’ll eventually go there often to work’, we imagine he means to paint.

Gauguin arrived in Arles on 23rd of October when Pluto was transiting his Mercury in Cancer (Mercury is also the Almuten of Gauguin’s chart). His Mercury ruled his second house and his eleventh, so perhaps he was looking to ingratiate himself with his agent’s brother and make some more money (2nd house) or to recoup the money he felt Theo owed him, Gauguin believed the brothers were exploiting him. Gauguin was looking for a colleague to work with (11th house). However, neither was to materialise instead a final rupture and disaster followed (Pluto).

Van Gogh rented four rooms in a building on the Place Lamartine in May.  This building known as the “Yellow House,” was to be his Studio of the South.

The Yellow House, September 1888, Vincent Van Gogh.

During the nine weeks he stayed, Van Gogh painted thirty-six canvases and Gauguin twenty-one, including portraits of each other. In his 1903 biography, Gauguin wrote of his time with Van Gogh,

‘Unbeknownst to the public, two men accomplished in that period a colossal amount of work, useful to both of them. Perhaps to others as well? Some things bear fruit.’

To help persuade Gauguin to move to the Studio of the South, Theo provided a 250 franc monthly allowance in exchange for one of Gauguin’s paintings each month (remember that Mercury ruling the 2nd house).  Van Gogh painted sunflowers to decorate what was to become Gauguin’s bedroom. 

Sunflowers, Van Gogh 1888.

In Arles, Gauguin bought a bale of jute which they both used for their canvases.  This coarse material made them apply the paint more thickly and to use heavier brush strokes.  Van Gogh and Gauguin also painted similar subjects in Arles such as landscapes and people in the village as well as each other.

Vincent painting sunflowers, Paul Gauguin, 1888.

The collaboration was intense but it was not to last. Van Gogh’s mental illness grew worse, he was terrified that Gauguin was going to leave him and began to follow him. Their relationship deteriorated. Van Gogh experienced Gauguin as arrogant and domineering (that Leo Ascendant). Van Gogh wanted to be treated as Gauguin’s equal, but Gauguin refused to do so (Gauguin’s Saturn conjunct his MC). They had bitter quarrels. Van Gogh described the situation as ‘excessive tension.’ They moved towards disaster (Gauguin’s Uranus, Pluto conjunct Van Gogh’s Mercury in angry, selfish Aries).

In late December, following several days of heavy rain, when both men were shut in at home, things came to a head (Uranus, Pluto). Gauguin claimed Van Gogh followed him when he went out for a walk, and ‘rushed towards me, an open razor in his hand.’

On the 23rd of December, they had a massive argument and Van Gogh severed his ear, wrapped it in paper and took it to a young woman who cleaned the brothel both men had visited. He then collapsed and was hospitalised. Gauguin contacted Theo, who arrived on December 25th. Gauguin left Arles and the two men never saw each other again. In his lucid moments Van Gogh asked for Gauguin, but Gauguin said to the gendarme, perhaps expressing his caring Jupiter in Cancer,

‘be kind enough, Monsieur, to awaken this man with great care, and if he asks for me tell him I have left for Paris; the sight of me might prove fatal for him.’

On the 23rd of December, Jupiter was conjunct Van Gogh’s Moon at 20’ Sagittarius and Mercury was conjunct his Jupiter at 28’, triggering both sixth house planets and sending him out of his mind with madness (Moon) but not killing himself (Jupiter). Maybe Gauguin’s abandonment brought back the childhood (Moon/ Cancer) trauma of being sent away. In Medical Astrology the ears are ruled by Saturn. Mars (the knife) was square his natal Saturn at 16’ Aquarius, which may have expressed the illogical but logical reaction to not being heard/listened to by Gauguin. Van Gogh’s Saturn was conjunct Gauguin’s MC (18’ Taurus) so they both would have been affected by the Mars transit. Van Gogh to self-harm/ punish himself (Saturn/Mars) and Gauguin to escape home (Mars was opposite his IC) and protect his career (conjunct his MC).

Van Gogh was to live another year and a half, moving in an out of mental hospitals, until he committed suicide on July 27th, 1890. His last paintings were of wheat fields with louring skies.

‘Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me.’

Wheatfield under Thunderclouds, 1890, Vincent Van Gogh.

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