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In the Footsteps of Van Gogh

It was the light that drew Vincent van Gogh to Arles. For a man raised under the gray skies of the Netherlands and the gaslight pall of Paris, Provence's clean, clear sun was a revelation. In his last years he turned his frenzied efforts toward capturing the " … golden tones of every hue: green gold, yellow gold, pink gold, bronze or copper colored gold, and even from the yellow of lemons to the matte, lusterless yellow of threshed grain."

Arles, however, was not drawn to Van Gogh. Though it makes every effort today to make up for this misjudgment, Arles treated the artist very badly during the time he passed here near the end of his life—a time when his creativity, productivity, and madness all reached a climax.

Van Gogh began working in Arles in 1888 with an intensity and tempestuousness that first drew, then drove away, his companion Paul Gauguin, with whom he had dreamed of founding an artists' colony. Astonishingly productive—he applied a pigment-loaded palette knife to some 200 canvases in that year alone—he nonetheless lived in intense isolation, counting his sous, and writing his visions in lengthy letters to his long-suffering, infinitely patient brother Theo. Often drinking heavily, Vincent alienated his neighbors, driving them to distraction and ultimately goading them to action. The people of Arles circulated a petition to have him evicted just a year after he arrived, a shock that left him more and more at a loss to cope with life and led to his eventual self-commitment to an asylum in nearby St-Rémy.

The houses he lived in are no longer standing, though many of his subjects remain as he saw them (or are restored to a similar condition). Happily, the city has provided helpful markers and a numbered itinerary to guide you between landmarks. You can stand on the Place Lamartine, where his famous Maison Jaune stood until it was destroyed by World War II bombs. Starry Night may have been painted from the Quai du Rhône just off Place Lamartine, though another was completed at St-Rémy.

The Café La Nuit on Place Forum is an exact match for the terrace platform, scattered with tables and bathed in gaslight under the stars, from the painting Terrace de café le Soir; Gauguin and Van Gogh used to drink here. Both the Arènes and Les Alyscamps were featured in paintings, and the hospital where he broke down and cut off his earlobe is now a kind of shrine, its garden reconstructed exactly as it figured in Le Jardin de l'Hôtel-Dieu. (As for that infamous ear— actually, just the left lobe—historians theorize Van Gogh wielded the knife in a kind of desperate homage to Gauguin, whom he had come to idolize, by following the fashion in Provençal bullrings for a matador to present his lady love with an ear from a dispatched bull.)

The drawbridge in Le pont de Langlois aux Lavandières has been reconstructed outside of town, at Port-de-Bouc, 3 km (2 miles) south on D35.

About 25 km (16 miles) away is St-Rémy-de-Provence, where Van Gogh retreated to the asylum St-Paul-de-Mausolée. Here he spent hours in silence, painting the cloisters and nearby orchards, vineyards, and star-spangled crystalline skies—the stuff of inspiration.

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