After living in Paris for two years, Vincent van Gogh moved to the very south of France, in his search for the light and the brighter colours. He has spent a year there and that’s where he has found his own unique style. It’s also where some of his most famous paintings were created. There are many locations related to life and work of Van Gogh in Arles, that could still be seen today. I’ve spent two days there and have looked for some of them.
Van Gogh in Arles
I’ve boarded a train in Paris early in the morning and some two and a half hours later, I arrived to a completely different world – Provence. While still on a train, I could see changes in scenery and colours. And then, when I’ve got out of a train station, the air was completely different… I was at the south.
Dear Theo, Arles is beautiful! It’s as if I’m in Japan, with the bright atmosphere and the joyful colour effects.
I could just imagine how Vincent must have felt, once he came to his ‘Japan’, to Arles. He came there in a spring of 1888 and have spent a bit more than a year there. This is the place where his art came to its peak and where he created his unique and recognizable style. Majority of his most famous paintings, like the ‘Sunflowers’, ‘The Yellow House’ or his ‘Bedroom in Arles’, were created there.
Arles is such a beautiful little town. It looks like a small version of Rome, but with French charm. It used to be an old Roman town. So, there is a big Roman amphitheatre and some other buildings from that time in the city centre. It’s also filled with those Mediterranean beige and yellowish three storey buildings. They form such a beautiful colour combination with a dark blue Rhone River.
Fondation Vincent van Gogh
I’ve arrived to Arles in the early afternoon, and after checking in at my hotel, I went to the Tourist Office to get my Arles Card. I had a free access to some monuments with it. After a delicious lunch (if French food is great, then food in Provence is even better), I went to Fondation Vincent van Gogh.
I was welcomed by Sara, who was my guide in a museum. The idea of the museum is to educate about Vincent’s art, exhibit his work and tell the stories of different painters somehow linked or similar to Van Gogh. In a moment, they have a great exhibition about Georgian naive painter Niko Pirosmani. He was a bit younger than Vincent, but lived longer than him. However, he, similar to Vincent, wasn’t understood during his life and died without any recognition. Although these two never met, some similarities between them are so amazing.
I loved seeing how Vincent’s work and life inspired some installations in a museum. My favourite was that rain from one of his Japanese prints. The museum is only five years old, but the work they are doing, and the way they are interpreting Vincent’s influence, definitely makes it a great place to visit.
Musée Réattu Arles
Following Sara’s recommendation, I went to another museum then – Musée Réattu Arles. It’s located in the old 15th Century building that once belonged to the Knight Order of Malta. I wanted to see it because it’s a place Vincent visited while in Arles, as well. He mentioned the visit in one of his letters. It looks like he didn’t really like some of the paintings there. In fact, he even found them to be rather ugly.
Beside some classical paintings, the museum today has a very nice collection of modern and contemporary artists. I especially liked some of Picasso’s drawings. He was also closely linked with Arles. Picasso visited it a few times (mostly because of the bullfights) and have some of his exhibitions organised there, as well.
Locations related to Van Gogh in Arles
After spending my first day by exploring museums, I’ve decided to look for locations related to Van Gogh in Arles the next day. I had breakfast at my hotel and have gone to the Arles tourist office to meet my guide Nina. She took me on a walk around Arles and has shown me some places related to Vincent.
Hospital in Arles
We went to the hospital where van Gogh spent a few months after that ‘ear incident’, first. It’s not used as a hospital anymore, but some other institutions are now there (like the city archive, for example). However, in 1989, exactly 100 years after Vincent stayed there, they’ve restored the courtyard of the building, after one of Vincent’s paintings. He painted it in April 1889, so at the same time of the year as of my visit. Trees and flowers looked just the same as in his painting. The garden of the hospital, where Vincent used to paint is called today ‘Espace Van Gogh’.
Cafe du Forum
We continued towards the Forum then, where one very famous place related to Vincent is. You’re probably guessing, it’s a cafe from one of his nocturnal paintings. It looks completely the same as it did on his painting. There is a reason for it actually. In the same year when the hospital in Arles was renovated after one of his paintings, that cafe was renovated, as well. And since Vincent has painted it in yellow (he was showing the lamp reflection on it), the building was painted in the same colour, too.
Vincent started to work on his night scenes during his time in Arles. One of his goals was to paint the night scene without using the black colour. He’s mentioning that in one of his letters:
In the past they used to draw, and paint the picture from the drawing in the daytime. But I find that it suits me to paint the thing straightaway. It’s quite true that I may take a blue for a green in the dark, a blue lilac for a pink lilac, since you can’t make out the nature of the tone clearly. But it’s the only way of getting away from the conventional black night with a poor, pallid and whitish light, while in fact, a mere candle by itself gives us the richest yellows and oranges.
It was so interesting spotting all the Roman remains in Arles. They are everywhere, built into some newer buildings, partly excavated in the courtyards etc. Walkthrough Arles definitely feels a bit like a walk through history.
Starry Night over the Rhone
We strolled alongside the Rhone River then. It was Vincent’s motive on many of his paintings. Probably one of the most famous of them is the ‘Starry Night over the Rhone’. We went to the very spot from where he has painted it. It was so surreal standing at a spot where he did while painting one of his most famous paintings. I could just imagine how it must have looked like being there in the evening.
While in Arles, I have realised for the first time how Vincent was a bigger realist than I have thought. He was definitely always painting after reality. Art researchers know exact dates of his night scenes (like his ‘Cafe Terrace at Night’ or ‘Starry Night over the Rhone’), because he’s showing the exact position of stars at the sky.
I was also surprised to see the sky in Arles during the day time. Because of the specific wind, clouds swirl in reality like they do on his paintings. Even more pastel colours he’s using when painting the nature in Arles is something I could see while there. That was definitely one of the biggest discoveries I had during my search for places related to Van Gogh.
The Yellow House
Next stop was a place where he made another famous painting – ‘The Yellow House’. Although the house was heavily damaged during the Second World War and demolished, later on, you can still recognise the place from his painting. He had a big idea of having an artist colony there. And I could just wonder what would have happened in case he would have managed to do that. Would he be happier? Would he felt more accepted in Arles? Well, as Nina and I agreed, there are many ‘what if’s’ when it comes to Vincent…
I rented the right wing of this yellow house today. I’d like to turn it into a refuge for artists who like the sun and colours. Perhaps, our friend the painter Gauguin wants to come to the south…
Paul Gauguin came to Arles in October 1888 and stayed with Vincent during the next two months. And although at the beginning everything seemed fine, soon they started to argue and life together became unbearable. A few days before Christmas Day, they were together in a bar and they started another argument. Gauguin said later on, how Vincent started to threaten him with a razor, so he run away to a hotel. But, Vincent came back to the Yellow House, cut a part of his ear and brought it to a girl in a local brothel (that was funnily enough, somewhere at the same spot where my hotel in Arles was). It was one of the first serious signs of the mental illness and it’s a moment when things started to change in Vincent’s life.
I think that Gauguin is a bit disappointed with Arles and above all, disappointed in me. I can’t exactly describe what I have. I suffer terrible fits of anxiety at times. Without a clear cause. At times, I feel perfectly normal. But the attacks increase in frequency. I think it’s best I admit myself to an asylum.
Van Gogh Painting Workshop
After a short coffee break, soaking some sun and spotting those clouds that look like they have been taken away from one of Vincent’s paintings, it was the time for something I was looking forward the most to do in Arles. Nina and I went to the Van Gogh Painting Workshop organised by La Couverture Verte. And, it’s, in my opinion, one of the best ways to learn about Vincent’s art. You can see here a video from one of their Van Gogh painting workshops to feel a bit of an atmosphere there.
We were welcomed by Philippe and his team. I was given some acrylic paint and, after doing two short exercises, to get myself familiar with Vincent’s colours and brush strokes, I was ready to do a copy of one of his paintings. Since I was in Arles, I’ve chosen one of the paintings he created there, with a view on Arles.
When I had to copy one of van Gogh’s paintings, I started to look at it in a new light. I had to mix the right shades, understand the way he was working on it and tried to do it in the same way. The hardest part for me was the thing I thought would be the easiest – his brush strokes. I’ve realised how fine and delicate they actually are.
Amphitheatre & the city park
I enjoyed so much in the Van Gogh Painting Workshop, that I stayed there longer than we’ve planned. So, I had to say goodbye to Nina and continue my search for places related to Van Gogh in Arles on my own. I have visited a few locations from his paintings in the afternoon. I went to the Amphitheatre because he created one of his paintings inside of it. I also went to the city park where another one of his work was created. It was so fun imagining him wandering around the town, looking for interesting motives and painting them on a spot there.
The last place I went to, was the Alyscamps cemetery, Vincent has visited and painted together with Paul Gauguin. It’s such a spiritual place with all the old stone sarcophagus around.
Not related to Vincent, but the church there and its crypt looked to me as the one in Elizabeth Kostova’s ‘The Historian’ (the last one where Dracula lived). There was definitely some strange energy there…
Although I was so impressed with the architecture of the church and the cemetery there, it looks like it wasn’t that interesting to van Gogh. He painted the path with trees there. And once again, nature was his inspiration.
Although Van Gogh spent only a year in Arles, it was definitely one of the most important places for his art career. It was the place where he has found those colours and light he was searching for in Paris. While walking around Arles I could see so well his colours, motives and even the brush strokes. Unfortunately, it was also where his mental illness started to appear more and more. So, after a year van Gogh lived in Arles, he moved to a nearby Saint-Remy-de-Provence where he went to the mental hospital.
You can read all of the posts from my Van Gogh trip below:
# – Some general info about my Van Gogh trip
# – Visiting Kröller-Müller Museum
# – Vincent Van Gogh in the Netherlands
# – Vincent Van Gogh in Belgium
# – Vincent van Gogh in Paris
# – Vincent Van Gogh in Auvers-sur-Oise
# – Vincent Van Gogh in Arles
# – Vincent Van Gogh in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence
*My visit to Arles and places related to Van Gogh’s life there was a part of my “Follow the Footsteps of Vincent van Gogh” trip. It was supported and organized by the Van Gogh Europe, Arles Tourism Board and Fondation Vincent van Gogh. Many thanks to all of them, my lovely guides Nina and Sara, Philippe and his team at the Van Gogh Painting Workshop and everyone else who helped me organized it.