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Van Gogh in Provence

The artists got it. Immediately. They saw what Provence was all about and worked like mad to capture its magic on canvas. And mad is an operative word for one of the most famous of these aesthetically tortured souls: Vincent Van Gogh.

A few days ago, I spent some time at the asylum where Van Gogh interned himself for a year beginning in May, 1889. Today a hospital, or maison de santé, St. Paul de Mausole is located just outside the town of St. Rémy de Provence in the Alpilles mountains.* A graceful allée of trees leads to the Zone touristique where visitors can see the simple chapel and cloisters of the former monastery as well as a reconstruction of Van Gogh's room.

The bucolic setting is deeply peaceful. Fewer art lovers than I expected stopped by, adding to the intimacy I felt in wandering through this intense chapter in Van Gogh's short existence.

Detailed panels posted on the stone walls recount milestones in the painter's life. Born in 1853 in Holland, Van Gogh did not create his first canvas until 1881. He traveled to southern France in 1888 and explored much of western Provence from his home base at Arles. After his sojourn at St. Paul de Mausole, he went to Auvers-sur-Oise in northern France where he died from a suicide attempt on July 27, 1890.

I did the math. Van Gogh painted nearly 900 toiles (canvases) in less than nine years. Etonnant (stunning).

As he tried to recover his health at the asylum near St. Rémy, Van Gogh seized the essence of southern France in his art and also in his letters to his brother Theo:

"Ce matin j'ai vu la campagne de ma fenêtre longtemps avant le lever du soleil, avec rien que l'étoile du matin, laquelle paraissait très grande.

Mais quel beau pays et quel beau bleu et quel soleil ! Et encore je n'ai vu que le jardin et ce que j'aperçois à travers la fenêtre. Tout près d'ici il y a des petites montagnes, grises ou bleues, ayant à leur pied des blés très, très verts et des pins."*

("This morning I saw the countryside from my window long before the sun came up, with nothing but the very large morning star in the sky.

But what beautiful country and what beautiful blue and what sun! And again I saw only the garden and what I could perceive from my window. Nearby are small mountains, gray or blue, with very, very green wheat fields and pine trees lying at their feet.")

I stepped outside the cool stone rooms into fields of red poppies, wheat and lavender behind the monastery. The Alpilles were a stone's throw away. Pine trees framed the view everywhere I looked. It was easy to imagine what Van Gogh saw from his window all those years ago. On the other hand, it was difficult to contemplate the genius he bequeathed in his paintings. How did he think to paint the pulsating stars in the Provençal sky we see in Starry Night? How did he grasp the emotion of the gnarled and twisted olive trees in Les Oliviers?

I paused before the full-sized reproductions of his works that line the garden paths. I glanced at the adjoining landscape. Suddenly, I perceived the artist in a whole new way-and experienced this land I have visited so many times with a new set of eyes.

The next day, I went deeper into the artist's vision with a visit to the Cathédrale d'images a few kilometers from St. Rémy.* A former limestone quarry, the Cathédrale d'images now offers a sound and images show based on a chosen theme, and this year's subject is "Van Gogh." I walked from the hot sun into the cool interior of the quarry and was immersed in paintings and images from the artist's life. Music from Satie, Bach and Prokofiev accompanied the rich visual sequences. Words cannot adequately describe the sensation of standing before and inside 40-foot projections of Van Gogh's extraordinary artistic legacy.

As I walked out of the quarry space, I was touched by the intuition and creative energy Van Gogh left behind in his paintings and in the places he walked and lived in southern France. And I realized his gifts are all the more reason to love this particular corner of the earth.


* St. Paul de Mausole is located on the main road from St. Rémy to Les Baux near the Roman ruins of Glanum, another must-see site in this area of Provence. It is easy to miss the drive into the asylum-if you get to the entrance to Glanum, you have gone a few yards too far.

* From Lettres de Provence de Vincent Van Gogh (2007). I just picked up this lovely little book in the main bookstore in St. Rémy. It contains excerpts of the artist's letters that focus on his experiences in Provence.

* La Cathédrale d'images is located just outside the hilltop town of Les Baux de Provence. "Van Gogh" is on view until January 4, 2009. The 30-minute show runs daily from 10am to 6pm. Closing time is at 7 p.m. from April 1, 2008 until September 30, 2008. The last entrance is 1 hour before closing. Bring a sweater as it is easy to get chilled in the quarry-even in mid-summer!

July 2, 2008

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