Tracking Vincent van Gogh in Arles (Part 1)

France > Arles

September 2013

We went for a drive in southern France and northwestern Italy in late September 2013, and found ourselves in the lovely town of Arles, on the bank of the Rhône river. It has been settled since 1000 BC at least, and was an important Roman city (1st century BC – 6th century AD), thanks mainly to its location at a very important European river. We actually went to Arles looking for the Roman ruins which earned it the coveted UNESCO World Heritage Site … but instead it became a Vincent van Gogh journey!

In early 1888 VvG decided to flee Paris as he thought he was going crazy and decided to settle in Arles to rest and to pursue his painting career. He also thought the Arles area was similar to Japanese landscape, thanks to his obsession with Japanese paintings at that time. He stayed in Arles till mid-1889, but during this short period of time he produced some 300 paintings and drawings, including his best-known ones — it is said his best works were done here in Arles. But unfortunately it was also a tragic period, and a year later he committed suicide in a Paris suburb.

I dedicate this blog on van Gogh to two of his greatest fans — my old friend, Ishak Ariffin, and our youngest child, Aina. 😀

 

Our little car safely stowed in a multi-storey car-park, we emerge to something very neo-Roman straight away. Good start.

The weather looks dogdy, a bit coolish with the occasional slight drizzle, as we find a tourist centre just past the ‘roman’ hotel.

For a princely sum of  €1, the lady at the counter hands me this handy guide. She runs out of English version, and offers me either French or German. I opt for the latter since my German is definitely better than my French. The guide has a map, so the idea is to follow the trail to experience nine of Vincent van Gogh’s best paintings in Arles. Yellow markers on the ground should be able to help too … but easier said than done.

Next to the tourist centre, an original merry-go-round from 1900. The French seem to love this contraption, we keep bumping into them (working ones) wherever we travel.

The first spot is just a few hundred metres away, across a busy street, tucked behind some old buildings. A side lane takes us to a courtyard surrounded by yellow and white buildings.

A well-tended garden is in the middle, which looks very familiar.

Yes, this is the famous garden painted by VvG in 1889, when this place used to be a hospital.

He must have drawn from the balcony of the first floor, where his ward was — VvG was admitted here on Christmas eve 1888, after cutting his right ear, probably in a bout of craziness!

They have kept the garden as it was in 1889, when vG painted it, right to the types of plants.

The fountain is idle, alas, but it is not as large as vG painted. He purposely enlarged the fountain in his work for better perspective, I believe.

In any case, the garden is a wonderful sight, definitely a plus for the recuperating people who had the misfortune to be here.

And of course it is called “Garden of the Hospital in Arles”:

Vincent van Gogh
Painting, Oil on Canvas
Arles, France: April, 1889

Winterthur, Switzerland

The hospital done, we take to the lanes of Arles again, which are somewhat decrepit.

At the bank of the Rhône river, we spot the second painting. It shows the steps going up to the steel bridge across the river.   

It’s the Trinquentaille, a railroad bridge in those days, but not any more.

I stand at the low wall and look downstream.

How could a person like van Gogh render a plain boring object into such a magical sight? In 1987 the painting was auctioned for US$20.2mil in London.

Here it is … ‘The Trinquentaille Bridge”.

Vincent van Gogh
Painting, Oil on Canvas
Arles: October, 1888
Private collection

We cross the bridge, and to our right, the old part of Arles. It used to be a railtrack here during vG’s time.

There are spots where the town look a bit worn, but they lend to the aura of an old and historic place.

Nevertheless the signage is pretty good, and the town is great for walking.

There’s also a  major Roman ruin along the way — the Constantine Baths, built in the 4th century AD, as part of the Constantine Palace. Now a World Heritage Site object.

We pause for orientation as a barge finds its way along the Rhône, one of the most important waterways of Europe. The next VvG painting should be where those long white and blue boats are berthed. Quite a walk we have.

The walk along the majestic river is not a bad one, if only the weather is better.

As barges swing by, I can’t help but admire how the Europeans have developed their waterways into an efficient transportation system. This ship from Basel (on the Rhine river in Switzerland) has even made it here!

And tucked behind the wall, which I missed but spotted by ma’am (thanks, dear), is another of VvG’s famous works.

Not really spectacular at this time, but I’m sure on the evening vG was here, it looked much much better.

Obviously it’s “Starry Night Over the Rhône”.

Vincent van Gogh
Painting, Oil on Canvas
Arles, France: September, 1888

Paris, France

Don McLean wrote the splendid ‘Vincent’, a worthy tribute to the man … starry, starry night …

Starry, starry night 
Paint your palette blue and gray 
Look out on a summer’s day 
With eyes that know the darkness in my soul 
Shadows on the hills 
Sketch the trees and the daffodils 
Catch the breeze and the winter chills 
In colors on the snowy linen land 

Now I understand 
What you tried to say to me 
How you suffered for your sanity 
How you tried to set them free 
They would not listen, They did not know how 
Perhaps they’ll listen now 

Starry, starry night 
Flaming flowers that brightly blaze 
Swirling clouds in violet haze 
Reflectin’ Vincent’s eyes of china blue 
Colors changing hue 
Morning fields of amber grain 
Weathered faces lined in pain 
Are soothed beneath the artist’s loving hand 

For they could not love you 
But still your love was true 
And when no hope was left inside 
On that starry, starry night 
You took your life as lovers often do 
But I could have told you Vincent 
This world was never meant for one as 
beautiful as you 

Starry, starry night 
Portraits hung in empty halls 
Frameless heads on nameless walls 
With eyes that watch the world and can’t forget 
Like the strangers that you’ve met 
The ragged men in ragged clothes 
The silver thorn of bloody rose 
Lie crushed and broken on the virgin snow 
Now I think I know 
What you tried to say to me 
How you suffered for your sanity 
How you tried to set them free 
They would not listen they’re not listening still 
Perhaps they never will 

===

> TO BE CONTINUED

 

 

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