Arles and Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France

June 13 and 15, 2019

Vincent van Gogh, one of the greatest Dutch painters, created many of his masterpieces in France. In the two years he lived down south, Provençal brightness and warmth colored his palette. Swirly strokes and sunny yellows stamped his works as distinctly his own. I had to hand it to my sister. She not only plotted our itinerary to trace Van Gogh’s steps in the South of France; she came as a Van Gogh personified in an appropriately sun-kissed OOTD. Her fashion ensemble was decidedly specific in cultural appropriation; she should have been – in woke word – cancelledt.

TTT and Sis @ Café Van Gogh, Arles
“Terrasse du café le soir” (“Café Terrace at Night”) @ Café Van Gogh

Café Van Gogh

“The night is more alive and more richly colored than the day,” so went Van Gogh’s description of his evenings in Arles, his hometown outside of the Netherlands. Café Terrace at Night showed ever so clearly what his words conveyed. Our first stop was the actual café the artist painted en plein air. We found it abuzz with tourists despite the almost unanimous bashing at Tripadvisor. The café’s claim to fame was its history, not food or service. All I had was an attempted shot from Van Gogh’s perspective and, as if on cue, a waitress “photo-bum’d” my own work of art.

Van Gogh eschewed black and white in rendering nighttime scene. In the words of the Dutch legend: “Now there’s a painting of night without black…a mere candle by itself gives us the richest yellows and oranges.” The complementary yet striking gaslight yellow and the deep blue yonder made this night as intense and vibrant as the artist intended. Van Gogh enjoyed the nightlife, after all, but in his own terms – working on his art. The painting, also called by the more romantic Café, le soir (Coffeehouse at Evening), could be seen at the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, the Netherlands.

Café Van Gogh @ Arles
“La Nuit étoilée” (“The Starry Night Over the Rhône”) @ Arles

Rhône River

The next stop on Van Gogh’s trail got me scratching my head. I was stoked to see where the legendary The Starry Night was created. We got to the riverside spot and found Starry Night Over the Rhône instead. The artist’s unmistakable signature style, however, snapped me out of my disappointment. The quay of old had been paved; still, the view remained almost identical to the painting: the rightward bend of the lazy Rhône outlined by the Arles skyline. But while we basked in the blindingly bright noontime sun, Van Gogh immersed in the shadows of night, the time of day when the artist was in his element. The painting presently hung at Musée d’Orsay in Paris.   

TTT @ Rhône River, Arles
Rhône River @ Arles
“Le jardin de la maison de Santé a Arles” (“Garden of the Hospital in Arles”) @ Espace Van Gogh

Espace Van Gogh

Arles was a place both of Van Gogh’s inspiration and anguish. He was admitted to a hospital after his downward spiral culminated in self-harming. He barely survived that infamous episode with a severed earlobe. The former 16th-century institution had since been turned into a tourist stop and a souvenir shop. The courtyard was landscaped to resemble how Van Gogh immortalized it in his famous painting Le jardin de la maison de Santé a Arles, now part of a private collection in Switzerland. I was unable to go up the second floor to mimic the artist perspective for my photo.

TTT @ Espace Van Gogh
“Chûte de feuilles” (“Falling Autumn Leaves”) @ Les Alyscamps

Les Alyscamps

The long tomb-flanked Roman road called Les Alyscamps was a favorite artistic subject of both Van Gogh and his bromance partner Paul Gauguin. They painted together in what was already a popular lovers’ lane then. One product from those sessions was Falling Autumn Leaves, another depiction from a higher viewpoint, also exhibited at Kröller-Müller Museum. Tall poplar trees still lined the footpath as did Arlésians and Arlésiennes of centuries past interred in unmarked headstones. The location was simultaneously sunny and somber – very Van Gogh.

Les Alyscamps @ Arles
TTT @ Les Alyscamps
Tomb @ Les Alyscamps
Monastery of Saint-Paul de Mausolé @ Saint-Rémy-de-Provence

Cloitre St. Paul (Saint Paul de Mausolé)

Van Gogh spent the penultimate year of his life committed to an asylum, the Saint Paul de Mausolé, at Saint-Remy-de-Provence, a few towns away from Arles. He remained artistically prolific until his death, creating almost 150 paintings inspired by the surrounding fields of lavender. I imagined how the quiet Romanesque cloister and the wide expanse of nature calmed and soothed Van Gogh’s tormented soul.

“La Chambre à Arles” (“Bedroom in Arles”) @ Monastery of Saint-Paul de Mausole
Vincent van Gogh’s Bedroom @ Monastery of Saint-Paul de Mausole

Van Gogh’s room was recreated for visitors. The wiry bed, wooden chair, patchy walls lent a lived-in feel to the room. An easel with a repro painting propped on it indicated that the room doubled as his studio. The reconstruction, though a quietly moving touch, could not match the emotional realness of the painting of his rented room, not this one, titled Bedroom in Arles, which I saw at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The artist’s choice of contrasting colors and distorted perspective hinted at a more profound, oddly disturbing state of mind. The room was merely a space he filled; the artwork evoked what filled his headspace. Finally, I stood where, arguably, the most famous painting in the world was created – The Starry Night, now permanently housed in New York City’s MoMA.

The Starry Night @ Monastery of Saint-Paul de Mausole
DJ @ Vincent van Gogh’s Room, Monastery of Saint-Paul de Mausole
“Jardin de l’hospice Saint-Paul” (“Garden of Saint-Paul Hospital”) @ Monastery of Saint-Paul de Mausolé

In his first month, Van Gogh was strictly detained within hospital grounds. This confinement never put a damper on his creative juices, which produced several paintings of the garden of flowering bushes and pine trees. In one, a lone foreground figure, believed to be one of his doctors, stood under a gnarly tree. The artist took immense pleasure at this burst of inspiration from the beauty of nature within the constrictive cloisters of the courtyard.

Monastery of Saint-Paul de Mausolé @ Saint-Rémy-de-Provence
My Sister @ Monastery of Saint-Paul de Mausolé, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence
“Pin et figure devant l’hôspital Saint-Paul” (“Pine Trees with Figure in the Garden of Saint-Paul Hospital”) @ Monastery of Saint-Paul de Mausolé, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence
Le champ Van Gogh @ Monastery of Saint-Paul de Mausolé, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence
Monastery of Saint-Paul de Mausolé @ Saint-Rémy-de-Provence

Along with Rembrandt, Van Gogh foreshadowed the era of selfies. He painted 36 self-portraits in the final decade of his life. It was as if he knew his time was running out. In most, if not all, of these portraits, his expression was as intense as his characteristic red beard. Unlike our selfies, though, his portraits did not filter out the vulnerability on his face. A photo of his final Self-Portrait, painted in 1889 just months before his death, welcomed visitors to the former asylum and present monastery. This welcome may have lacked warmth; I tried mimicking his severe gaze, but even my sleep-deprived, dark-circled eyes could not fathom the depth of his quiet despair. Wittingly or not, it drew me into the winter of his life. The artwork was displayed at Musée d’Orsay in Paris, but in this monastery, it marked the end of our Van Gogh trail.

TTT and VVG @ Monastery of Saint-Paul de Mausolé, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence
Statue of Vincent van Gogh @ Monastery of Saint-Paul de Mausolé, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence

Following Van Gogh’s steps, thus, went down this way. I realized he was chasing light and colors to sun-drenched Provence. He did capture those ethereal qualities in art but not in life. Alas, such brightness only fleetingly permeated into his inner darkness. Van Gogh died by his own hands in the summer of 1890. Before that, he shed light on his state of heart to his sister while he was confined in an Arles hospital:

We need good cheer and happiness, hope and love. The uglier, older, meaner, iller, poorer I get, the more I wish to take my revenge by doing brilliant colour, well arranged, resplendent.

Vincent van Gogh

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