If you weren’t seeking it, you’d probably miss it. That’s how unassumingly Arles sits on the Provençal tourist map. But if you do set out to explore this sleepy French city, you’ll see why it once dazzled Vincent van Gogh. The hotbed of Camarguais culture cradling river Rhône, Arles holds within its ageing walls Roman ruins and leafy squares. Its pastel-hued stone dwellings have, in particular, found immortality in van Gogh’s works. The Dutch artist lived here for a few months in the 1880s and produced about 200 paintings, 100 drawings and nearly as many letters.
Despite being the wellspring to many van Gogh classics, strangely enough Arles doesn’t own any of them. The Fondation Vincent van Gogh Arles gallery, however, regularly displays works on loan from Amsterdam. But for those whose hearts lie in the swathes of open fields and fresh air, ditch the gallery tour and trace van Gogh’s footsteps instead, taking in the rush of colours and the bountiful landscape that once inspired the post-impressionist artist. From his home, “The Yellow House”, which was destroyed in World War II to spots from whose vantage points he unleashed those masterly strokes, guided tours here hold up Arles through van Gogh’s looking glass. The trail—dotted with concrete easels displaying photos of his paintings juxtaposed against the same backdrops as in the artworks—makes for delightful then-and-now comparisons.
Following the tip-off one fine April morning, battling the violent Provençal mistral, my husband and I set out on an exploration of the present day forms of van Gogh’s historic muses. Here’s a look at five of his iconic paintings committed to canvas centuries ago, and how the passage of time has transformed these scenes in today’s Arles.
Van Gogh moved to Arles in February 1888. After the flatlands and the grey windblown surfaces of his native Holland, he found the profusion of colours and the splendid yellow sun of rural France captivating. He fell into a frenzied spell churning out masterpieces every other day during his 15 months in Arles, a period considered as the most significant phase in his career. The “Sunflowers” series and “The Yellow House” are some of his major works to come out of the time spent in Arles. But it is the “Starry Night over the Rhône” that remains one of his most widely recognised works. In those days he became the first to paint after sunset. The eccentric artist is said to have mastered the art of balancing candles on his broad-brimmed straw hat to paint after nightfall. Currently, the river wall, against which van Gogh had once rested his easel to produce marvellous results, stands holding its own against the tumultuous Rhône.
Despite the magical landscape of Arles, van Gogh often found its people strange. Lonely from little interaction, he invited his friend and artist, Paul Gauguin, to come and live with him. He had plans of running an artists’ commune along with Gauguin where both of them would mentor young artists. That plan never materialised.
It was during this period when the two pals would paint side by side through the mornings and hit the bars and brothels at night that he painted “Café Terrace at Night”, a painting of a café’s al fresco section in Arles’s Place du Forum. Today the café, predictably known as Café Van Gogh, has transformed into a buzzing tourist hotspot.
Smitten by the Provençal setting, in a letter to his brother, Theo, van Gogh wrote “this country seems to me as beautiful as Japan as far as the limpidity of the atmosphere and the gay color effects are concerned. Water forms patches of a beautiful emerald or a rich blue in the landscape, just as we see it in the crépons(a type of Japanese woodblock print)”. No wonder then in his works in Arles he brought out the swirling blues, rich greens, pale oranges, and blooming orchards. This colour palette is most resplendent in “Entrance to the Public Garden in Arles”, a painting that depicts the commonplace, everyday life of Arseliennes in Jardind’été, a mid-sized park in Boulevard des Lices. A stroll down this park today reveals how little it has changed. A perfect refuge on a hot summer day, the vibe and vistas here still evoke the imagery of the thick canopy of flowering trees and the surrounding luminosity van Gogh had once perfectly captured on canvas.
In another letter to Theo, van Gogh mentions working on the “The Old Mill”. He talks about painting it in “broken tones”. The finished canvas is said to have been sent for an exchange with the works of his contemporaries Paul Gauguin, Émile Bernard and Charles Laval to the Pont-Aven School. On Old Mill’s trail, hiking up to Rue Mireille, we were thrilled when we finally hunted it down. Non-functional and greatly altered, the mill stands under a rail bridge. The thatched roof has been replaced with tin and the surrounding grassland now serves as a parking lot.
Van Gogh painted the view of the garden from his hospital ward as he lay recovering after a violent episode in which he cut off an earlobe. It is said that while he sat drinking absinthe with Gauguin at the café in Place du Forum just before Christmas in 1888, he hurled a glass at Gauguin, who luckily ducked and escaped. A few days later he accosted Gauguin again, threatening him with a razor. Gauguin fled the scene. The following morning a nearly dead van Gogh was discovered in bed, his head wrapped in a bloodied towel. After this meltdown and while still in hospital, in the spring of 1889, he looked out at the lush, flowering garden and made it throb with life putting reed pen, brush and ink to canvas. The hospital on Place du Docteur Félix-Rey is no longer functional. Renamed L’espace Van Gogh, it’s now a cultural centre that sells van Gogh memorabilia and souvenirs. A somewhat diminished space, its courtyard flourishes with much tending and the insistent glare of the Provençal sun.
Debashree Majumdar is a failed skier and enthusiastic hiker. When travelling, she seeks out the hum of old neighbourhoods and the noise of bazaars. She is a freelance writer-editor and currently lives in Geneva.