Postcard from Arles: a walk in Vincent's footsteps

Retracing the steps of Vincent van Gogh in Arles, Provence. Many of the places he painted still exist largely unchanged.

Postcard from Arles: a walk in Vincent van Gogh’s footsteps
21st September 2007 Jane Tomlinson

2 September 2007

Vincent van Gogh arrived in Arles in the south of France in February 1888 to seek light, warmth and colour for his paintings for many other romantic reasons, inspired by books he’d read and a quest to find scenes which reminded him of the Japanese prints he collected. He found a delightful ancient town and countryside which fuelled his creative mojo like never before and moved him to make most of his finest drawings and paintings.

Some of the places he painted still exist largely unchanged and it is these that we sought out today.

After stopping at the information centre to pick up a van Gogh tour cheat sheet, with van Gogh locations marked on a handy town map, we made our way to the old hospital, where Vincent was a patient after the earlobe severing episode. Here’s Vincent’s painting:

The hospital’s courtyard cloister garden is maintained as it was when Vincent was there with formally laid out flowerbeds, trees and a central fountain and pool.

He painted this garden in April 1889 and as ever with Vincent’s compositions, it’s fascinating to see what he did with the reality of the scene and how he translated it into a composition: squashing the space, altering the viewpoints, forcing perspective to do things that the eye cannot. In doing all this, he makes a picture which is more descriptive of the actual scene, more about how it is than how it looks. And yet you can still see the reality of each element. Genius.

I thought I’d have a crack at it too, from the other side from where Vincent painted:

Next came the Pont de Trinquetaille, in Vincent’s day a fairly new bridge, and the only bridge over the Rhone as it flows past the city. He was intrigued by the steps up to the bridge and the view of the arch as the riverside road passes beneath.

The little sapling he shows us in his painting of October 1888 is now a splendid, mature plane tree.

We returned to the old town centre to the Place du Forum (Arles was a Roman town) where he made a painting of a cafe terrace at night, allegedly illuminating his easel by sticking candles to his straw hat.

Anyway, the cafe is restored to how it may have looked in Vincent’s day and painted bright yellow.

Though I suspect the yellow glow shown in Vincent’s picture is a heightened colour based on the gaslight glowing beneath the glass awning. We stopped there for a coffee and a cigar. Here’s Moth enjoying the Provencal ambience of the ‘La Cafe la nuit’ as they now call it:

It felt very special to be sitting in the subject of painting I have admired for many years! No once puts yellow and blue together quite like Vincent. We would come back to la Cafe la nuit again.

From the Place du Forum, we followed the narrow streets north towards the river again and walked along the high levees of the south bank as it turns south, to the place from where he painted the breathtaking Starry night over the Rhone. We’d return to this spot later, too, after dark.

The bend in the river in Vincent’s day was a busy wharf of barges carrying goods to and from the town. He returned to the riverbank many times to paint the open wooden boats and their cargoes- the hustle and bustle of ordinary working people’s lives, and of course because it was only metres from his house, what he called the Yellow House on Place Lamartine. In 1888 it stood just outside the old city walls and in front of a small public park.

The truth is that most of the houses in Arles are painted yellow, Naples Yellow to be precise, with green shutters and roofs of orange pantiles. There was nothing unusual about the little yellow house he rented in summer 1888, except he wanted to use it to found a ‘studio of the south’ and invite many of his contemporaries to join him. It was a foolish, romantic notion, which failed disastrously when the arrogant, egocentric Paul Gauguin came to join him.

The nine weeks they spent together in the yellow house sparked many of the finest works of art ever made, but took a terrible toll on Vincent’s fragile health and resulted in the aforementioned, infamous earlobe slashing episode. But this is not the time for me to give my opinions about that well-documented incident!

The Yellow House is now gone; bombed during an Allied air-raid on the town in 1944. The US bombers were aiming at the nearby railway line, but missed and partly destroyed the house. The building that was behind the Yellow House still stands and can be clearly seen in Vincent’s pics of his little home.

Place Lamartine is now a traffic roundabout, though since I was last in Arles, 15 years ago, they have planted more flowerbeds and have even put a little pool in the place where one once stood in the public park and Vincent painted. A display board, featuring Vincent’s painting of the Yellow House, now stands where the house did.

It is incredible to think that on this spot some of the best known, best loved and most influential works of modern art were conceived, carried to and from, repainted, touched up, copied and shipped out from, back to his brother Theo in Paris. And from this place too, is where Vincent wrote many of his hundreds of very moving, emotionally charged letters. He was a superb writer.

We wandered back into the old town down the Rue Voltaire, which Vincent must have known like the back of his hand, towards the Roman amphitheatre which dominates the town. It is still used for bullfighting as indeed it was in Vincent’s day.

He made a painting of one of the corridas, though concentrated on making the crowd the subject rather the action in the ring. The habit of matadors who cut off a just-killed bull’s ear to give to their sweethearts may have been one of the reasons why when Vincent harmed himself, he presented his lobe to Rachel, a prostitute who he made frequent ‘hygienic visits’ to.

A short walk east takes you back through the city walls and over the main road and railway line to an old mill on Rue Mireille which once stood on the very edge of town.

The round building, and beyond it the plain of La Crau, appealed to Vincent, and in September 1888 he set about painting it. In recent years it has become dilapidated, and urban sprawl behind it obscures the once pastoral view, but the mill building is now being done up,  from the progress we saw they are using Vincent’s painting as a guide to how to do it up!

Christ, it was hot as we walked back south and then turned west toward another public park where Vincent set up his easel in October 1888 to paint, once again, ordinary people doing ordinary things; strolling in the park, reading a paper, sitting and gossiping.
Some of Vincent’s most workaday subjects are so very appealing. I think because of their simplicity we relate to them. Here’s Moth, strolling in the same point in the same park:

From the park, we headed off towards the old Roman cemetery of Les Alyscamps, with its lines of trees and heavy stone sarcophoguses once the resting place of recently christianised Romans. In October 1888, Vincent and his house guest Gauguin came here to make paintings. Vincent dashed one off in one sitting while Gauguin laboured over his and moaned at Vincent that he’d rushed his. He was just jealous!

As we were so hot, we sat in the shade and I made a little sketch.

It was interesting to consider Vincent’s Alyscamps compositions. He tended to use the subjects in front of his eyes as information to feed into his compositions rather than slavishly copy the scene in front of him; he was painter – an artist – after all. And he did wonderful creative things with perspective in the same way that 19th century Japanese printmakers did. Here’s the sketch I came up with.

We drove to the west of Arles to an ugly, modern bridge crossing a canal fed by the Rhone.

Here once stood a little wooden lifting bridge, constructed in the same way as the Dutch did – and do. It must have reminded Vincent of his native land. He painted the bridge and canal and people using it at least three times using the most wild and beautiful colours. The bridge, which he called the Pont Langlois, after the name of the owner, was moved to its current location a few kilometres further south down the canal and now straddles a what-looks-to-be disused lock cut, rather than projecting from big stone piers into a busy waterway plied by cargo-laden barges and bustling with women doing their laundry as Vincent depicted in March 1888.

Even Moth, who is not a massive fan of van Gogh, found the day interesting as it took us all around the town, and he delighted in my joy at following in Vincent’s footsteps.