4 September 2007
In May 1889, Vincent van Gogh checked in at the St Paul de Mausole hospital in St Remy de Provence, 15 miles from Arles to be treated for his mental illness. He stayed there for more than a year and completed many fine paintings and drawings during his frequent periods of lucidity. In fact painting and drawing may be what kept him feeling sane.
Today I visited St Remy de Provence for the first time. It’s a very pleasant old Provencal town – but Vincent didn’t paint many scenes around the town, as he had in Arles. Here’s one:
Mostly he was confined to the hospital and had occasional forays into the very nearby rocky mountainscapes of the Alpilles which rise up dramatically just a few hundred metres from the hospital.
We spotted a couple of scenes that he painted in the town, but there are so few that I know well and that I could accurately identify, that we zipped straight to the hospital which know in my mind so well from looking at Vincent’s wonderful works. Consequently the approach to the hospital seemed so familiar with the little stone benches, great pine trees lining the driveway and olive groves in the surrounding fields.
Ah yes, just like Vincent shows us:
Olive trees still grow in the fields in front of the hospital.
He painted loads of them as you would when you’re surrounded by them! And in many of his paintings the jagged, strange shapes of the mountains rise up beyond. The mountains really ARE those shapes. I used to think that he exaggerated them for effect or their strange tortured writhing reflected something of his mental illness. Not so! He shows them precisely as they are. How could I have imagined anything else? Perhaps I’ve read too much psycho-babble.
The hospital is still a working institution, so as a visitor you are limited to just a few areas. Some of the wards have been renamed since Vincent was here:
We walked down the driveway, paid our 4euros entrance fee, and walked past a flowerbed stuffed with irises (sadly not in bloom at this time of year) which were the subject of his first masterpiece from the St Remy period. We entered the cloister, a quadrangle of great architectural beauty and deep shady walkways but not the quadrangle that I know from Vincent’s compositions, the one with the little pool and fountain in the middle surrounded by magnificent pine trees. Where is that? It must be here? We didn’t see it.
The tour lead us to the hospital garden at the back of the cloister, which was once the walled field which Vincent could see from his room and which he painted and drew endlessly, as if to try to make sense of his confinement.
Today the field has been laid with lines of lavender and vegetables and the side wall is no longer clearly visible, and the view beyond over open country towards the mountains is obscured by houses and gardens.
But I know this field very well thanks to Vincent, high with grasses, with a great golden sun hanging over the mountains beyond, being sown, reaped, harvested and toiled in.
The tour continued to what I thought was a pathetic reconstruction of Vincent’s bedroom with an old iron bedstead, an easel, bars at the window, a chair, a desk.
Where was the smell of turpentine and oil paint? Where were the canvases and rolls of drawings that I saw in my mind stacked up in Vincent’s room? Where was the smell of stale tobacco, dirty clothes and wee? OK, I didn’t really expect to find these things more than 118 years after he left, but I knew it couldnâ€™t be the real room because the window was not the shape I remember from the painting he made of it; and the horrible, badly reproduced (printed in reverse, would you believe) faded self-portrait made we want to weep. The view through the barred windows onto the walled field at the back of the hospital may well have been a sight Vincent would know.
The visit to the hospital left me frustrated. I didn’t really see anything that helped me to truly understand the paintings, no genuine viewpoints, and I felt quite sure the quadrangle and the long corridors still existed. Ah well, as Moth said, at least they let visitors in. I know they never used to. So to relieve my frustration, I did what Vincent would have; I drew. I parked the car in front of the entrance and sat in car and sketched this scene:
The mistral had been blowing violently all day, so sitting outside was impossible. I sat in the car and I drew the hospital entrance, the big pine trees and the cypresses poking up behind the walls.
Yes, that’s better.
We would return to St Remy again the following week. And I would discover much more and come away much happier.