In May 1889, Vincent van Gogh checked in at the St Paul de Mausole hospital in St Remy de Provence to be treated for his mental illness. He stayed for more than a year. When feeling well enough, he completed many fine paintings and drawings. Indeed, painting and drawing may have been what kept him feeling sane.
We visited St Remy de Provence in 2007 in search of the places Vincent would have known and painted.
During his stay, he was mostly confined to the hospital. He made only occasional forays into the mountains which rise up just a few hundred metres away.
The hospital is still a working institution, so visitors are limited to just a few areas. The cloister, the walled field, and a not very good reconstruction of Vincent’s bedroom cell. The bedroom was furnished spartanly, an old iron bedstead, an easel, bars at the window, a chair, a desk. Alas, the fountain and pool in the quadrangle garden was out of bounds.
The approach to the hospital was very familiar from Vincent’s paintings – the little stone benches under the great pine trees lining the drive. In the fields right next to the hospital were olive trees and cypresses.
The hospital garden at the back of the Romanesque chapel is the walled field which Vincent could see from his room. He painted and drew this bounded field repeatedly, as if to try to make sense of his confinement.
As I sat and sketched I began to understand it as a symbol of safety and security for him. Away from the world which called him mad. He painted the field being sown, reaped, harvested and toiled in, with a great golden sun hanging over the mountains beyond.
Mountains and trees
The Alpilles mountains surround the hospital. So it’s not surprising he painted them so often. They are jagged limestone and make strange shapes. Before I’d visited St Remy, I used to think that he had exaggerated their shape to reflect something of his mental illness. But this is not so! He shows them precisely as they are. Of course he did. In Vincent’s paintings they often appear towering over the olive orchards and in the background of his cypress paintings.
Wandering around outside the hospital, I was particularly pleased with a hunch I had to follow a track towards the mountains to a limestone quarry where Vincent ventured to paint the rocks and trees. It was very close by!
A deeper understanding
I now understand why he chose and repeatedly painted the main motifs we associate with Vincent’s time in St Remy. The pines, the olives, the cypresses, the mountains, the walled field, the sunsets. All those things were already there for him, immediately in front of his eyes. He didn’t even have to go looking.
Since we visited, there is now a Van Gogh walking route to help you navigate your way around the sites.
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. Reworked and republished in 2023.