Arles: In Search of Van Gogh

Watching the movie Séraphine (my last post) made me think of another artist tormented by mental illness. Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) was born in the Netherlands. His artistic imagination was ignited when he moved to Paris in 1886 and saw the works of the impressionists. But the prolific period of his life began only after he went south to Arles.

I visited Provence in August, 2010, went on a walking tour of Arles following the footsteps of Van Gogh. For Paris in July hosted by Karen of Bookbath and Tamara of Thyme for Tea, I’m reposting an excerpt of my travelogue here. Some of you may remember my series of travel posts, but many of you have come to Ripple Effects only recently. Please join me as I revisit Arles and its nearby St-Rémy-de-Provence.


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 and the photos, 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 landmark 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 in the violent action of bullfighting than 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 café 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:

And here is Van Gogh’s rendering when he was staying there:

In January, 1889, Van Gogh returned home to his ‘Yellow House’ (which has now been torn down and reconstructed), 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 of Saint Paul de Mausole hospital:

The olive grove outside:

Olive Grove (June, 1889):

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: 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:


My five-part travelogue on England and France:

  1. Tate Modern & Billy Elliot
  2. Bath’s Persuasion
  3. Paris: The Latin Quarter
  4. Art and Cliché
  5. Arles In the Steps of Van Gogh

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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

26 thoughts on “Arles: In Search of Van Gogh”

  1. I love Van Gogh’s trees. There are a few here that have that slow animation!

    You have a way of taking us with you. I really enjoyed this post! So much the struggle….


    1. Michelle,

      Walking the streets of Arles makes me appreciate the artist more. It’s not just the paintings as objects, but the person behind them and you’re right, the struggle despite of…


  2. Van Gogh’s work has always been a favorite of mine. His use of color and line makes me speechless. I could stare at his work for hours.


  3. Lovely post, Arti, very moving. I think you’d like The Yellow House by Martin Gayford, which is a non-fiction account of Van Gogh’s last few months, written with a particular appreciation of his art.


  4. This may be one of my favorite of your posts from the time I’ve been here. It’s beautiful and I loved how you matched up the locale photos to the paintings. I love Van Gogh’s work. He’s one of my favorites, but I’ve never seen the “real” spots in conjunction to the paintings and that adds an entirely new dimension to my thought. I also didn’t realize that mental illness was recognized as a disease (with treatment) in that period. I thought that was a later invention for no other reason than my guess. I’m pleased to know that it was recognized at that time and that he was wise enough to recognize in himself the need to seek help. Of course, it all bailed at the end, but still…. I learned such a lot here. I’ve not been to this part of France and have always thought, “Next time.” Now it’s “next time, for sure.”


    1. Jeanie,

      Yes, do visit Provence next time. When in Arles, take the walking tour of Van Gogh sites. You’ll see how the painting relating to that location is mounted there so you can see Van Gogh’s rendition of the locale. it’s really interesting and informative. As for the treatment of Van Gogh’s mental illness, it seems that Dr. Theophile Peyron at the Saint Paul de Mausole was very successful in helping him cope, that’s why he’s most prolific there. But just too sad that he left the hospital too soon. Have you read his letters? I’ve a review post on The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. You may be interested to check that out.


    1. BermudaOnion,

      Welcome! You must have lots of wonderful memories from living in France. Provence is a must-see. I’m sure you’ll have the chance to return in the future.


  5. What a lovely post. I have a reproduction of Cafe Terrace At Night hanging in my office, but the reproduction cannot capture those wonderfully rich and saturated colors that even come through the photograph you posted.


    1. Grad,

      Welcome to Ripple Effects. Yes, Van Gogh loved bright colours after he’d experienced the Provence sun. If you’re interested, I’ve another Van Gogh post about the letters he wrote to his bro Theo. He wrote in details revealing his creative process and how his colour palette changed when he was in Arles.


    1. ds,

      It’s so poignant encountering Van Gogh through his paintings, letters, and the tracks he had been. I’m sure you’ll find Provence inspiring. Thanks for joining me on this virtual tour. 😉


  6. Love this post! The Cafe Terrace At Night and Starry Night are two of my favourite of his works. Vincent by Don McLean is also another personal favourite. Reading your post has definitely put Arles firmly onto my list of ‘must visit’! 🙂
    A good reminder to start dipping into my copy of his Letters.


  7. i used to love “Starry Night” best of all Van Gogh’s paintings. As I became more familiar with his life (thanks partly to you and your posts, which make him quite approachable) my favorites have shifted and changed, more than once.

    Still, my all-time favorite remains his study for Starry Night – I suppose because it’s such an intimate glimpse into the creative process.

    It makes me wonder – do writers keep their drafts these days? It’s so easy to rewrite as we go or hit the delete button. That may be why I enjoy collections of letters, too. They don’t get re-written – they can be almost pure expression of someone’s personality.


    1. You’ve brought out a good point. With the digital revolution, how has the creative process changed? I don’t save my drafts but just the final copy. And yesterday I was at a bookstore and saw all these wonderful journals, and I thought, alas, I didn’t write with pen on paper that much anymore.


  8. What a fabulous post. I love how you show us the inspiration and then the painting. And how fantastic that the city has put up pillars with the picture and information, that walking tour must be fabulous. I haven’t made it out of Paris to Provence, but one day, one day I will.


    1. Louise,

      Arles is a small town. And probably one of the most famous past citizens is Van Gogh. There are several walking tours taking you to different sites where the artist had frequented. It’s really worth the trip if you’re in France.


  9. Van Gogh’s paintings have always made me wish I could see him at work, laying down the strokes, blending colors. Wonderful post, Arti. I’ve enjoyed your photos as you visited these landmarks.

    p.s. Hope your son will be able to use a straw. I keep hearing about others’ experiences with jaw surgery that made eating with a syringe (ugh) necessary. And if you want more recipes, let me know.


    1. nikkipolani,

      Thanks. I’ll definitely ask for advice from you regarding nutritious fluid recipes. As for Van Gogh’s thinking and creative process, reading his letters is a must. You may want to check out my other post on that if you’re interested.


  10. I love Van Gogh and am now envious of your awesome trip that you got to walk around where he did. Thanks for sharing the photos so at least I could get a vicarious thrill!


    1. Stefanie,

      Yes, it was quite a memorable experience. It’s a pleasure that I can take you on a virtual tour. Thanks for coming along. 😉


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