While Paris has her cultured beauty and sophistication, I’d appreciated the change of scenery and warmer weather as I headed south to Provence. Three hours via the TGV took us to the historic City of Avignon, site of the Papal Palace before the Vatican. We stayed in Avignon for three days, taking daily excursions out to nearby towns. Arles was a must-see on my list.
Van Gogh moved to Arles from Paris in 1888, seeking the tranquility that was so elusive to him in the big city. In his letter to his brother Theo upon arrival to Arles, he wrote:
It seems to me almost impossible to be able to work in Paris, unless you have a refuge in which to recover and regain your peace of mind and self-composure. Without that, you’d be bound to get utterly numbed.” — Tuesday, Feb. 21, 1888.
The fresher and more colourful palette is apparent during this most prolific period of the artist’s life. Bright yellows, blues, shorter and swirling brush strokes established his signature style. As for me, I was a bit disappointed to see the sunflowers have already withered in late August. Fields of yellow were now massive brown. They would be harvested at a later time for their oil, a good reminder that, for tourists, it’s the view, but for those living here, it’s their livelihood. The lavenders on the Luberon mountains too had long passed the season. Note to myself: Early to Mid July is best if I ever come this way again.
But all was not lost. I was gratified to follow some of Van Gogh’s footsteps as I explored the clearly posted Van Gogh sites in the town, the scenes and locales where the artist so vividly captured in his paintings.
Arles is a Roman town. What more prominent to reflect its past glory than the Roman Arena in the town centre. Why all the arches? The free flow of pedestrian traffic. The full seating capacity, 20,000 people, could exit the Arena in 7 minutes.
Used by gladiators in ancient time, the Arena is still the venue for bullfights:
But Van Gogh’s interest was not so much on the violent action of bullfighting than on the people, as his painting Spectators In The Arena At Arles (December, 1888) clearly shows:
The Café Terrace on the Place du Forum was his hang-out, renamed Café Van Gogh now. The yellow building upon the backdrop of the blue, starry night had deeply inspired the artist:
Café Terrace At Night (September, 1888):
Van Gogh had wanted to make Arles a hub for fellow artists. Upon his urging, Gauguin came to join him in October, 1888. The two painters frequented the Café Terrace many a night but only for two short months. What happened on December 23rd was reported by the local paper the next day:
At 11:30 pm., Vincent Vaugogh [sic], painter from Holland, appeared at the brothel at no. 1, asked for Rachel, and gave her his cut-off earlobe, saying, ‘Treasure this precious object.’ Then he vanished.
After this incident, Van Gogh was admitted to a local hospital, now the Espace Van Gogh in Arles, a cultural centre:
In January, 1889, Van Gogh returned home to the Yellow House, but for the next few months, suffered onslaughts of hallucinations and delusions. His view of his own condition nevertheless was lucid and even progressive for his time. His letter to Theo is poignant, as he openly faced his predicament and earnestly sought a solution:
And for the time being I wish to remain confined, as much for my own tranquillity as for that of others.
What consoles me a little is that I’m beginning to consider madness as an illness like any other and accept the thing as it is, while during the actual crises it seemed to me that everything I was imagining was reality.”
– Sunday, April 21, 1889.
On May 8, 1889, he checked himself into the Saint Paul de Mausole, the mental hospital at St-Rémy-de-Provence. Under the care of his doctor Théophile Peyron, the artist’s condition improved and he thrived in the idyllic environment there. Art therapy had brought healing and prolific output. Van Gogh stayed there for a year and created more than 150 paintings.
Dr. Théophile Peyron out at the front garden:
The olive grove outside St. Paul hospital:
To his brother Theo, he wrote on Sunday, May 11, 1890:
At the moment the improvement is continuing, the whole horrible crisis has disappeared like a thunderstorm, and I’m working here with calm, unremitting ardour to give a last stroke of the brush. I’m working on a canvas of roses on bright green background and two canvases of large bouquets of violet Irises…
My Van Gogh trip ended at St. Rémy, and so be it. I’ve seen the sites wherein the artist was at his most prolific. I’ve seen the town and surroundings where he found inspiration. I’ve seen his final solace where he attained some stability and painted with passion. I’d like to keep these as memories of my travel to Provence. I could hardly bear to think of his last days, discharged from St. Rémy just a few days after the above letter, headed north to Auvers-sur-Oise on the outskirt of Paris, and in just two short months, succumbed to the recurrence of his illness. He shot himself in the chest with a revolver on July 27, 1890, and died of his wound two days later.
Back to the thoughts I wrote about in my last post: How do we keep art from turning into a cliché? I think it takes a certain awareness of the artist as a person, plus a measure of empathy and respect for the struggle to live and create… and realizing that the beautiful works are often triumphs in spite of life’s overwhelming adversities, rather than the natural products of bliss and fortune.
To wrap up my travel posts, and taking the risk of turning it into a cliché albeit my motive is pure, here’s the YouTube clip again, Don McLean’s tribute to Vincent:
Some Van Gogh links:
 Rick Steves’ Provence and French Riviera 2010, published by Avalon Travel, p. 69.