One morning near the beginning of this trip, I woke up in Arles, France, where Vincent Van Gogh spent his most productive period — cranking out over 185 paintings in just 15 months, including many of his better-known works.
Since many of these paintings were executed outdoors, I thought it would be fun to tromp around Arles and see what some of the real locales look like today. ( Fortunately, visiting dilettantes like myself do this all the time, so the local tourist board has put up helpful little markers at several sites.) I only had about three hours before needing to get back on the motorway, so this is a rush job, and obviously only a shred of what someone who knows what they’re doing could find. But still, fun. So:
Here’s Van Gogh’s Maison Jaune, the yellow house where he lived, as he painted it, September, 1888:
And here’s the same corner today, exactly 120 years later:
The original house was damaged in a WWII bombing, so that explains the different building. But the perspective… I never noticed this before, but Van Gogh painted his subject here as if he were twenty feet off the ground. And looking through a giant yellow filter. It’s not just the building that’s yellow — almost everything’s yellow. Hmm.
Here’s the Trinquetaille bridge, painted in October, 1888:
And here’s roughly the spot where Van Gogh seems to have worked:
Again, it’s fun not just to look at the obvious changes over time, but to see how much hasn’t changed — and to notice just how ordinary Van Gogh’s subjects often were.
Here’s another fairly mundane spot, the entrance to the public park, just south of the Roman ruins — first, let’s look at my boring modern photo:
And now let’s look at the same spot through Van Gogh’s eyes, again in October of 1888.
Or take this mundane cafe terrace on the Place du Forum —
And watch it transform into the famous Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum, September, 1888:
This Van Gogh dude was… like… an artist, or something.
My favorite is Starry Night Over the Rhone, one of his most famous works, painted just a few steps away from his own front door at the yellow house, September, 1888:
Experts say there’s evidence of a great deal of reworking of the foreground — apparently Van Gogh took several cracks at that part of the scene, trying to get it just right.
Then again, when we look at the same spot today, you can see why — he had to get this big honking cruise ship out of the picture.
Yup — the spot where Van Gogh is believe to have painted Starry Night Over the Rhone now overlooks a dock for river cruisers. If Vincent were painting today, one of his works might be entitled Booze Cruise Under the Stars.
Even so, and conceding that my Starry Noon Facing a Bigass Boat on a Sunny Day Over the Rhone was never gonna come close to Van Gogh’s look — go back and compare. Check out the curvature of the Van Gogh’s coast, framing the scene; the strange largeness of the ripples in the water, given that a cloudless night would probably have little wind; the multiple shades of blue in the sky, creating an almost electric energy; and dozens of other details that transform this completely ordinary river scene into unforgettable art.
I’m no art history major, but you don’t need a keen grasp of impressionism and expressionism to recognize that Van Gogh was painting not what was — but what he saw, and needed rather compulsively to record, and ultimately what he wanted you to see, too. You just need to glance at the subjects and what he made of them, side by side.
Unfortunately, less than three months after completing all of the paintings we’ve just enjoyed, Van Gogh’s growing madness — about which there are dozens of theories, ranging from epilepsy to drinking too much absinthe (which may account for the dominant use of yellow) to lead poisoning from his own paints (which might have caused the way he portrayed stars as having large halos) — led him to infamously cut off part of his own ear in the course of various seizures, paranoid ravings, and assorted thrashy hollering.
Van Gogh spent much of the next several months looking out a window here, at what was then the local hospital.
Here’s one of Van Gogh’s last works from this period, The Courtyard of the Hospital at Arles, April 1889.
Shortly after this painting was completed, Van Gogh committed himself to a mental hospital in nearby San Rémy. He spent about a year there.
With limited subjects and his constant drive to paint, Van Gogh resorted to repainting subjects he’d already painted before, from memory. But he also painted this famous work:
It was based on the view out of his window in the mental hospital.
For what it’s worth, if anything, note the increasing halos and dominant yellows, even in a night scene.
In May, 1890, Van Gogh left the sanitarium at San Rémy. Although he continued to seek medical help, Van Gogh ended his own life less just two months later. The most expensive Van Gogh painting ever sold was a portrait of his last doctor.
Still, I’d like to end the email on a cheery note. Hmm.
The countryside in the area is certainly beautiful enough.
Although I was never able to find this exact set of twelve sunflowers.
Still, finding twelve sunflowers was never really a problem.
Another boggling realization:
Van Gogh, even when surrounded by this wondrous French countryside, would still look, find, and share such vivid beauty even in the most ordinary, pedestrian scenes.
These are eyes we might all try to see with sometimes.
Thanks for reading.