After living in Paris for two years, Vincent van Gogh moved to Arles in 1888. He was looking for a softer light and brighter colours and has found them at the very south of France. The painter spent a year there, during which he found his own unique style.
It’s also where some of his most famous paintings were created. There are many locations related to life and work of Van Gogh in Arles. And many of them could still be seen today. I’ve spent two days in that picturesque French town and have looked for some of them.
Van Gogh in Arles
I boarded a train in Paris early in the morning, and some two and a half hours later, I arrived in a completely different world – Provence. While still on a train, I could see changes in scenery and colours. And then, when I’ve got out of a train station in Arles, the air was completely different… I was in the south.
Dear Theo, Arles is beautiful! It’s as if I’m in Japan, with a bright atmosphere and the joyful colour effects.
I could just imagine how Vincent must have felt, once he came to his ‘Japan’ – to Arles. He arrived there in the spring of 1888 and have spent a bit more than a year in that town. That was a place where his art came to its peak and where he created his unique and recognisable style. Majority of his most famous paintings, like the ‘Sunflowers’, ‘The Yellow House’ or his ‘Bedroom in Arles’, were created there.
Arles is such a beautiful little town. It looks like a small version of Rome, just with a French charm. It actually used to be an old Roman town. There are a large Roman amphitheatre and some other buildings from that time right in the city centre. It’s also filled with that Mediterranean beige and yellowish three-storey buildings. Located on the banks of the dark blue Rhone River, they form a lovely contrast.
Fondation Vincent van Gogh
I arrived in Arles in the early afternoon, and after checking in at my hotel, I went to the Tourist Office to get my Arles Card. It was quite useful because I got free access to many city monuments with it. After a delicious lunch (if French food is excellent, then food in Provence is even better), I went to Fondation Vincent van Gogh.
I was welcomed by Sara, who was my guide at the museum. The idea of the museum is to educate about Vincent’s art, exhibit his work and tell the stories of different painters somehow linked or similar to Van Gogh. During my visit, they had a great exhibition about Georgian naïve painter Niko Pirosmani. He was Van Gogh’s contemporary, although lived longer than him. However, Pirosmani, similar to Vincent, wasn’t understood during his life and died without recognition. Although these two never met, some similarities between them are so amazing.
I loved seeing how Vincent’s work and life inspired some installations in a museum. My favourite were drops of rain painted on the wall, inspired by one of his Japanese prints. The museum is only five years old, but the work they are doing, and the way they are interpreting Vincent’s influence definitely makes it a great place to visit.
Musée Réattu Arles
Following Sara’s recommendation, I went to another museum later – Musée Réattu Arles. It’s located in the old building dating from the 15th-century, that once belonged to the Knight Order of Malta. I wanted to see it because it’s a place Vincent visited while in Arles, as well. He mentioned the visit in one of his letters. However, it seems he didn’t really like some of the paintings there. In fact, he found them to be rather ugly.
Beside some classical paintings, the museum today has a lovely collection of modern and contemporary artists. I especially liked some of Picasso’s drawings. He was also closely linked with Arles. Picasso visited it a few times (mostly because of the bullfights) and had some of his exhibitions organised there, as well.
Locations related to Van Gogh in Arles
After spending my first day exploring museums, I decided to look for locations related to Van Gogh in Arles the next day. After a lovely traditional French breakfast, I meet my guide for the day – Nina. She took me on a walk around town to show me some places related to Van Gogh in Arles.
Hospital in Arles
We went to the hospital where Van Gogh spent a few months after that ‘ear incident’, first. It’s not used as a hospital anymore, but some other institutions are now there (like the city archive, for example).
However, in 1989, precisely a hundred years after Vincent stayed there, the courtyard of the building was restored after one of Van Gogh’s paintings. He painted it in April 1889, at the same time of the year as of my visit. Trees and flowers looked just the same as in his painting. The garden of the hospital, where Vincent used to paint is today known as ‘Espace Van Gogh’.
Café du Forum
We continued towards the Forum then, where one very famous place related to Vincent is located – a famous café from one of his nocturnal paintings.
It looks entirely the same as in his painting. There is a reason for it actually. In the same year when the hospital in Arles was restored, that café was renovated, as well. And since Vincent painted it in yellow (he was showing the lamp reflection on it), the building was painted in the same colour.
Vincent started to work on his night scenes during his time in Arles. One of his goals was to paint the night scene without using the black colour. He’s mentioning that in one of his letters:
In the past they used to draw, and paint the picture from the drawing in the daytime. But I find that it suits me to paint the thing straightaway. It’s quite true that I may take a blue for a green in the dark, a blue lilac for a pink lilac, since you can’t make out the nature of the tone clearly. But it’s the only way of getting away from the conventional black night with a poor, pallid and whitish light, while in fact, a mere candle by itself gives us the richest yellows and oranges.
It was so exciting spotting numerous Roman remains in Arles. They are everywhere, built into some newer buildings, partly excavated in the courtyards etc. A stroll through Arles feels a bit like a walk through history.
Starry Night over the Rhone
Nina and I took a walk alongside the Rhone River later. It was Vincent’s motif on many of his paintings. Probably one of the most famous of them is the ‘Starry Night over the Rhone’. We went to the very spot from where he painted it. It was so surreal standing at the same place where Van Gogh did while painting one of his most famous paintings.
While in Arles, I have realised for the first time how Vincent was actually a bigger realist in his art than I have thought before. He was always painting after reality. Art researchers know exact dates of his night scenes (like, for example, his ‘Café Terrace at Night’ or ‘Starry Night over the Rhone’) because he’s showing the exact position of stars on the sky. Isn’t that just amazing?
I was also surprised to see the sky in Arles during the daytime. Because of the specific wind, clouds swirl in reality like they do on his paintings. I could also see those pastel colours he was using on his paintings of nature in Arles around me. That was definitely one of the most significant discoveries I had during my search for places related to Van Gogh.
The Yellow House
Our next stop was a place where Van Gogh created another one of his famous paintings – ‘The Yellow House’. Although the house was heavily damaged during the Second World War and eventually destroyed, the place from his painting could still be recognized.
He had a big idea of having an artist colony there. And I could just wonder, what would happen in case he would have managed to do that. Would he be happier? Would he felt more accepted in Arles? Well, as Nina and I agreed, there are many ‘what if’s’ when it comes to Vincent…
I rented the right wing of this yellow house today. I’d like to turn it into a refuge for artists who like the sun and colours. Perhaps, our friend the painter Gauguin wants to come to the south…
Paul Gauguin came to Arles in October 1888 and stayed with Vincent during the next two months. And although at the beginning everything seemed fine, soon they started to argue, so their life together became unbearable. A few days before Christmas, they were together in a bar where they started another argument.
Gauguin said, later on, that Vincent started to threaten to him with a razor. So he run away to a hotel. But, Vincent came back to the Yellow House, cut a piece of his ear and brought it to a girl in a local brothel (on a side note, that brothel used to be at a location of the hotel in which I stayed in Arles). It was one of the first serious signs of mental illness, and it’s a moment when things started to change in Vincent’s life.
I think that Gauguin is a bit disappointed with Arles and above all, disappointed in me. I can’t exactly describe what I have. I suffer terrible fits of anxiety at times. Without a clear cause. At times, I feel perfectly normal. But the attacks increase in frequency. I think it’s best I admit myself to an asylum.
Van Gogh Painting Workshop
After a short coffee break, soaking some sun and spotting those clouds that look like they have been taken away from one of Vincent’s paintings, it was the time for something I was looking forward the most to do in Arles. Nina and I went to the Van Gogh Painting Workshop, organised by La Couverture Verte. And, it’s, in my opinion, one of the best ways to learn about Vincent’s art while in Arles. You can see here a video from one of their Van Gogh painting workshops to feel a bit of an atmosphere there.
We were welcomed by Philippe and his team. I was given some acrylic paint and, after doing two short exercises, to get myself familiar with Vincent’s colours and brush strokes, I was ready to do a copy of one of his paintings. Since I was in Arles, I chose one of the pictures he created there, with a view on Arles.
When I had to copy one of Van Gogh’s paintings, I started to look at it in a new light. I had to mix the right shades, understand the way he worked on it and tried to do it in the same way. The hardest part for me was the thing I thought would be the easiest – his brush strokes. I’ve realised how fine and delicate they actually are.
Amphitheatre & the city park
I enjoyed so much in the Van Gogh Painting Workshop that I stayed there longer than we’ve planned. So, I had to say goodbye to Nina and continue my search for places related to Van Gogh in Arles on my own. I have visited a few locations from his paintings in the afternoon. My first stop was the Amphitheatre because he created one of his paintings inside of it. I also visited the city park where another one of his work was created. I had so much fun, imagining him wandering around Arles, looking for exciting motifs and painting them on the spot there.
The last place I went to was the Alyscamps Cemetery. Vincent visited it and painted it together with Paul Gauguin. It’s such a spiritual place with all the old stone sarcophagus around.
Not related to Vincent, but the church there and its crypt looked to me as the one from Elizabeth Kostova’s ‘The Historian’ (the last one where Dracula lived). There was definitely some strange energy there…
Although I was so impressed with the church’s architecture and the cemetery, it looks like it wasn’t that interesting to Van Gogh. He painted the path with trees there, but, once again, nature was in his focus.
Although Van Gogh spent only a year in Arles, it was definitely one of the most critical places for his art career. It was the place where he found those colours and light he was searching for in Paris. While walking around Arles, I could see so well his colours, motifs and even the brush strokes. Unfortunately, it was also where his mental illness started to appear more and more. So, after a year van Gogh lived in Arles, he moved to a nearby Saint-Remy-de-Provence where he went to the mental hospital.
You can read all the posts from my Van Gogh trip below:
- Following the footsteps of Vincent van Gogh
- Visiting Kröller-Müller Museum
- Locations linked to Vincent van Gogh in the Netherlands
- Locations linked to Vincent van Gogh in Belgium
- Locations linked to Vincent van Gogh in Paris
- Vincent Van Gogh in Auvers-sur-Oise
- Vincent Van Gogh in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence
*My visit to Arles and places related to Van Gogh’s life there was a part of my “Follow the Footsteps of Vincent van Gogh” trip. It was supported and organized by the Van Gogh Europe, Arles Tourism Board and Fondation Vincent van Gogh. Many thanks to all of them, my lovely guides Nina and Sara, Philippe and his team at the Van Gogh Painting Workshop and everyone else who helped me organized it.