If you were to ask 100 people to name their favorite artists of all time, there is little doubt that Van Gogh would be near the top of the list. His strange and often chaotic personal life was reflected in his artwork and while the canvases changed art forever, they also betray the soul of a tortured artist. Van Gogh moved several times in his life, but some of his most famous paintings as well as the most infamous events in his life all took place in Arles, France.
Located in the south of France, Arles is the classic French town everyone has dreamed of, including Van Gogh. When Van Gogh arrived in Arles in 1888, it was at yet another low point in his life. He was drinking too much, smoking too much and wanted to get away from Paris, which had simply worn him out. In Arles he hoped to start a utopian artists colony and invited friend Paul Gauguin to join him. What enchanted Van Gogh most about Arles and the surrounding countryside is also what captured my imagination – the vibrant colors and light. There’s just something unique about this small town in southern France that makes it an artist’s dream.
On my first night in the city that has seen everything from Roman conquest to World War II bombs, I stepped out of my hotel and immediately lost my breath. In the sky the last rays of sunshine were slipping away, leaving a purple sky streaked by moonlit clouds. The colors danced and the light was unlike anything I have ever seen and at that instant I realized why Van Gogh had been so very much inspired by this place.
In just 18 months, Van Gogh created more than 300 paintings and drawings of everything from local cafes to the Provençal countryside. Ultimately though Arles was not a place of light for Van Gogh; it was here where he so famously cut off part of his left ear. Gauguin had indeed decided to visit Arles, but instead of friendship dramatic tension grew between the two. Van Gogh resented Gauguin’s egotism but oddly enough also feared that he’d leave Arles, deserting Van Gogh. In a fit of sadness and panic Van Gogh detached part of his ear and staggered to Gauguin’s house, collapsing in a pool of blood. He was hospitalized and began suffering from even more mental issues until he finally left Arles in 1889 for an asylum in Saint-Rémy.
If you have a few hours to spend in Arles, it’s easy to retrace the footsteps of Van Gogh and see the subjects of many of his most famous works in person.
Read more about Van Gogh in Provence
Every April in Arles, bull-fighting season begins in the massive Roman arena in the middle of town. Van Gogh decided to use this annual spectacle as inspiration for a series of paintings, including rare portraits. As I walked into the arena I noticed the same unusual effects of the sun and shadows that Van Gogh once mentioned in a letter. It was an uncanny feeling to stand there more than a hundred years later and still experience the same feelings that motivated Van Gogh.
Les Quais du Rhone
Today the Rhone river isn’t the center of commerce that it was in the 19th century. When Van Gogh visited, the river was a flurry of activity, which he usually took good care to avoid. At night though, when life was considerably calmer, Van Gogh set up his easel and started to paint. You can relive the moments expressed in his work Starry Night Over the Rhone by walking down to the riverfront and looking out across the water, just as Van Gogh once did.
Yellow Cafe at Night
A quick survey of college dorm walls will probably reveal the painting Cafe Terrace at Night featured on a large percentage of them. The work is famous for the colors, composition and the way Van Gogh is able to draw the viewer into his 19th century world. Luckily not much changes in Arles, at least not quickly, and you too can have a glass of wine on the terrace of this famous cafe. The cafe though was painted yellow in order to capitalize on the fame of Van Gogh’s work. The color in his painting doesn’t come from the paint color, but from the lamps blazing onto the terrace.
After cutting off his ear, Van Gogh was admitted to the main hospital in town, the Hotel Dieu. Although the building dates back to the 1500s, the architecture reminded me of Arabic design and the elaborate garden in the middle adds a sense of calm and peace. Van Gogh didn’t experience the same feelings of peace as a guest at the hospital, but he did use the building and gardens to inspire still more paintings, most notably Courtyard of the Hospital at Arles.
These are just a few of the spots in Arles where you can retrace the footsteps of Van Gogh and step into his strange and chaotic world of light and color.
Luckily I left town far differently than Van Gogh, I caught a train headed for Avignon and a new set of adventures. As the train plowed into the countryside I looked out the window and thought, not for the first time, what a marvelous place to have inspired so many people to do so many great things. If you haven’t been to rural France, you need to go to capture this same sense of wonder if for nothing else.
Photos courtesy of Matt Long.
- Matt Long