In the Footsteps of Van Gogh
One of the goals of my month spent in Provence and the Côte d’Azur during October, 2011 was to visit and photograph sites that were important to the life and work of Vincent van Gogh. Van Gogh is today, of course, one of the most admired artists of the late nineteenth century. His art and his tortured life are the subject of a large number of books, articles and films, including Irving Stone’s 1934 biographical novel, “Lust for Life,” the 1956 movie of the same name based on the novel, and, most recently, an exhaustively detailed biography, “Van Gogh, The Life,” by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith (Random House, October 2011). Despite the fact that van Gogh’s artistic career spanned only a little more than ten years, his output was prodigious, comprising about 2,000 paintings, drawings and other works. He is most celebrated for the landscapes, portraits and still lifes he completed during the last five years of his life. These include “The Starry Night,” paintings of sunflowers and other flowers, trees and gardens, self-portraits, and portraits of “L’Arlésienne” (Madame Ginoux), of the postman Joseph Roulin and his wife, of Dr. Paul Gachet, and of other persons with whom he came in contact during these years.
Throughout his life, van Gogh suffered from serious mental and physical illnesses, including a form of epilepsy (as diagnosed by doctors at the time) and syphilis. He also suffered from an extremely excitable, irascible and seemingly bipolar personality that put him constantly at odds with nearly everyone with whom he came in contact, including his parents and other family members, employers and business associates, fellow artists and members of any community he inhabited. During his lifetime he sold only one painting, despite his younger brother Theo’s position as a mid-level manager at one of Europe’s most prominent art dealers. Theo in fact supported him financially during his entire career as an artist. His work was generally considered unsalable and received little notice until the publication in January 1890 (about six months before his death) of a highly favorable article in the magazine Mercure de France by the young critic Albert Aurier. Van Gogh’s late work has been variously characterized as Post-Impressionist, Symbolist and Cloisonnist, but remains distinctly recognizable as his own unique style.
In February, 1888, after living with his brother in Paris for two years, van Gogh moved to Arles and eventually established his residence and a studio there in the famous “Yellow House” at 2, Place Lamartine (unfortunately destroyed in a bombing raid during World War II). The period of van Gogh’s residence in Arles, from February, 1888 until May, 1889, saw the creation of many of his most well-known paintings. The Office of Tourism in Arles offers a free map of the city showing the locations where ten of these paintings were done. At each of these locations, a reproduction of the work painted there is set up on a post at approximately the location where van Gogh is thought to have stood as he painted. Of course, some of the locations van Gogh painted no longer exist, such as the Yellow House, or look quite different today than they did when he painted them more than 120 years ago. However, several are still quite recognizable. My first stop after arriving in Arles was at the site of van Gogh’s 1888 oil painting, “The Café Terrace on the Place du Forum, at Night.” This is the van Gogh painting:
Here is my photo of this location as it looks today, during the daytime, from approximately the same perspective:
In October, 1888, van Gogh painted this image of the entrance to the Trinquetaille Bridge, which spans the Rhone River at Arles:
Here is that location as it appears today:
One must admit that the appearance of this site is not improved by the addition of a parked car, graffiti and trash bin.
After months of entreaties from van Gogh, the artist Paul Gauguin joined him at the Yellow House in late October, 1888, and the two spent several weeks living and working together. It had long been a dream of van Gogh to form an artistic movement with Gauguin and other artists he hoped to attract to Arles. However, his relationships with other artists frequently ended with violent disagreements, and Gauguin was no exception. After a number of clashes between them, Gauguin walked out of the Yellow House on December 23. Apparently thinking that Gauguin was leaving for good, van Gogh initially ran after him. According to some accounts, van Gogh threatened Gauguin in a park with a straight razor, but Naifeh and Smith state (p. 702) that he simply gave Gauguin a newspaper article containing the words “Le meurtrier a pris la fuite” (the murderer has fled). In any event, it is undisputed that, when van Gogh returned to the Yellow House, he had an attack of some sort, cut off part of his ear with a razor, wrapped the severed flesh in a piece of newspaper and delivered it to a nearby brothel with instructions to give it to a prostitute named Rachel. There followed several months during which van Gogh alternated between a hospital in Arles and the Yellow House, until the police, upon the petition of about 30 neighbors, padlocked the door of the Yellow House in order to prevent him from returning there.
In May, 1889, van Gogh voluntarily committed himself to the asylum of Saint Paul de Mausole, located about a mile south of Saint Rémy-de-Provence at the base of the Alpilles mountain range. The asylum, a former monastery, derives its name from the nearby Mausoleum of the Julii, built about 30 BC by three Julii brothers in honor of their father, who had been granted Roman citizenship and the right to use the name “Julii” in return for his military or civil service to Rome. The mausoleum today remains in remarkably good condition:
Between the Mausoleum and the asylum lies the ancient Gallo-Roman town of Glanum, which has been under excavation since 1921. From the grounds of that site, I took this photo of the Mont Gaussier, which is part of the Alpilles range:
During his more lucid moments, van Gogh was permitted to leave the grounds of the asylum to paint. In a number of his paintings of that period, the above landscape is clearly visible, for example:
The Alpilles also appear in the background of van Gogh’s most famous painting, “The Starry Night,” likewise painted during this period. Regrettably, the wheat fields and olive groves so beautifully painted by van Gogh during his stay at Saint Paul de Mausole have since fallen victim to extensive residential construction in the vicinity of Saint Rémy.
As is generally known, Van Gogh died of a gunshot wound in the abdomen in July, 1890, while living in Auvers-sur-Oise under the care of Dr. Gachet. While popular accounts have attributed his death to suicide, Naifeh and Smith present substantial evidence that the shot may have been fired by someone else, possibly accidentally. See “Appendix: A Note on Vincent’s Fatal Wounding,” pp. 869 et seq.
Please note that the photographs shown in this posting are low resolution copies of the originals. For full resolution copies of these and other photos of Arles, Saint Rémy-de-Provence and other towns and villages in Provence, please visit the gallery Provence-Côte d’Azur on my photography website, Phil Haber Photography, where signed prints of these photos may be purchased. For additional information about my photography, please see my photography Facebook page.
Copyright © 2012 Philip A. Haber