Van Gogh in Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer

Van Gogh in Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer

Vincent’s “View of Les Saintes Maries de la Mer”.

Vincent van Gogh came to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in 1888 for a three-day painting trip.

Vincent made the 30 mile trip from Arles on a horse drawn carriage. In the decades years since since he visited, it has transformed from a tiny mosquito infested backwater of a fishing village with a the bones of a trio of Christian saints, to a touristy seaside resort with the bones of a trio of Christian saints. The three St Marys.

View of Les Stes Maries

View of Les Stes Maries in 2007

When we visited, it still felt a little like a frontier town, sandwiched between the Mediterranean Sea and the flat marshy land of the Camargue. An oasis on the edge of nowhere.

In 1888, Vincent wrote it had “no more than 100 houses” with orange roofs, and thatched white-washed cabanes or fishermen’s cottages clustered around the huge, dominating church. The church houses the relics of three early saints and has been a place of pilgrimage for centuries, especially for Europe’s Roma population. In Vincent’s perfect compositionView of Stes-Maries the church dominates the village.

Stes Maries cabanes and church

A fisherman’s cabane today – now mostly charming holiday lets. In Vincent’s day these were simple and rough dwellings.

But today the lavender fields he painted sweeping up towards the houses are gone, replaced by a promenade and car parking. The dunes on which he sat to draw seascapes are concreted over and the old cabanes he painted are mostly gone, replaced by shops and cafes and ice cream vendors.

Vincent’s “Three White Cottage at Les Saintes Maries”

Fisherman’s cottages

To the west of the town today a row of fisherman’s cottages cabanes still stand, mostly holiday lets now. But a few looked tumbled down and unkempt enough perhaps to be occupied by the town’s older residents.

A little watercolour sketch by me.

They are charming and characterful, and exactly how I expected them to look having seen Vincent’s drawings and paintings of them, with lines of thatch, rounded at one end and a strip of concrete along the roof’s apex.

I found a clear view to the west of the town where I could paint one of the cabanes with a view of the church in the background and flamingoes in the lagoon.

Once, these cabanes were inhabited by fishermen who hauled their brightly painted open wooden boats up on the beach for the night before setting their triangular sails again in the morning.


Vincent’s “Boats on the beach at Les Saintes Maries”

The beach at Les Saintes Maries

Vincent sat and painted the boats on the beach. One of his most beautiful and accomplished paintings, I think.

Today the boats are long-gone, as are the fishermen, replaced by holidaymakers, dog-walkers, and sun-worshippers.

We climbed up the church tower to see the view from the top and all those orange roofs he painted so brightly in his “View of Les Saintes Maries de la Mer“. I wondered how much of the town Vincent would recognise from here?

The Life and Works of Vincent van Gogh

Are you an admirer of Vincent van Gogh?
Check out my hand painted map “The life and works of Vincent van Gogh”

This blog was first published in 2007. Republished in 2023.

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