Chasing Van Gogh in Arles

The popularized image of Van Gogh is a tortured, mad, incredibly passionate painter. I’m not saying these adjectives aren’t true but I am saying that this is a huge understatement of Van Gogh as a person and his genius. Yesterday, I went on a day trip to the sites where Van Gogh stood and painted during his time in Arles in the south of France. Let me tell you, this man saw beauty in nature that the average person does not. I looked at the same Roman road, the cypress trees, the sunflowers that he looked at and I came to the conclusion that Van Gogh had this unique, emotional connection to the observable world and it moved him deeply. What in the world compelled him to paint his skies green for god sake? Clouds don’t really look like a giant glob of toothpaste and wheat isn’t really that golden. But his paintings of the trees and wind are so real they seem to move with the strokes. In any field, a person who would rather perfect his craft than eat, drink, sleep, be sane and sociable etc. has my admiration.

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I think in this picture you really get a sense of the infamous Provencal light that drew hundreds of artists to the region.

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First stop, Van Gogh’s bridge.

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One of the ancient “all roads lead to Rome” roads. The rectangle boxes on the sides are Roman sarcophagi for the dead elite. I think they emptied all of them by now…

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After the whole ear cutting episode, Van Gogh stayed at this hospital to recover and paint. Of course being hospitalized is no excuse to stop working. They redid the entire courtyard to mimic how Van Gogh painted it but I think the colors look too saturated now. If you compare Van Gogh’s other paintings with the actual site of inspiration, they look almost nothing alike in terms of color.

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He painted on this balcony and so we went to this balcony. Also, some reproductions really butcher the color harmony of the original.

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Completely different time of day but this is the river Rhone that inspired his “Starry Night Over the Rhone.” Can you kinda see it, maybe?

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Montmajour Abbey was another favorite of Van Gogh.

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And did you know that Van Gogh was also a gifted fashion designer? No but seriously, these are done by Christian Lacroix who happens to be from Arles.

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Of course no visit to Arles would be complete without visiting the asylum Van Gogh was a patient at towards the end of his life. Saint-Paul Asylum is pretty swanky though. Their gardens are beautiful and it’s still a fully functioning mental institution. We went to Van Gogh’s “room” (a replica) that boasted the same view he would have looked at for inspiration in the many series he painted while institutionalized (which he did voluntarily). They had thick bars over the windows though, so it was hard to imagine how he painted while looking through those annoying things.

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I might be mistaken but Starry Starry Night was done during his stay here, inspired by the view at night from his window. We studied Van Gogh’s reaper and wheat field series, though. Just as beautiful! Here’s my favorite of the lot:

And with that, we concluded a long tiring day of trying to piece together a little understanding of Van Gogh as a painter and as a person. Reading his letters to his brother helped. Here’s what Van Gogh wrote about the reaper series:

“There! The “Reaper” is finished, I think it will be one of those you keep at home – it is an image of death as the great book of nature speaks of it – but what I have sought is the “almost smiling.” … Well do you know what I hope for, once I let myself begin to hope? It is that a family will be for you what nature, the clods of earth, the grass, the yellow wheat, the peasant, are for me, that is to say, that you may find in your love for people something not only to work for, but to comfort and restore you when there is need for it. So I beg of you, don’t let yourself get too exhausted by business, but both of you take good care of yourselves – perhaps in a not too far distant future there will still be some good.” (Letter to Theo, Sept. 1889)

What is art but an earnest attempt at understanding the human experience?

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