Vincent Willem van Gogh lived in Arles from 20 February 1888 to 8 May 1889. That is almost 15 months, over 63 weeks, precisely 444 days. During his stay, he produced over 200 paintings, over 100 drawings and watercolours, and wrote some 200 letters. This period in Arles is frequently called the zenith, the climax, the greatest flowering of van Gogh’s decade of artistic activity.
The pedestrian circuit “In the footsteps of Van Gogh” is one of the 9 themed walks offered by the Arles Camargue Tourist Office. Vincent van Gogh spent 15 months in Arles between 1888 and 1889. Coming to seek the light of the South, the Dutch painter produced more than 300 drawings and paintings during this Arles period. The places in the city where the artist set up his easel are marked with panels representing his paintings.
During his stay in Arles between February 1888 and May 1889, Vincent Van Gogh executed about 300 paintings and drawings. The pedestrian circuit takes you to where the master set up his easel. The Vincent van Gogh Arles Foundation exhibits paintings by the painter on loan from the greatest international museums and brings them into dialogue with contemporary artists.
About ten spots have been marked : the Place du Forum for the Café in the Evening, the Trinquetaille bridge where he painted the Staircase of the Trinquetaille Bridge, the Rhone River embankment for his Starry Night over the Rhone, the Place Lamartine where his Yellow House was located, in the Rue Mireille at the Old Mill, the public park on the Boulevard des Lices for his Public Garden, the Espace Van Gogh and his Hospital Garden, the road going along the Arles-to-Bouc Canal at the Langlois Bridge with Washerwomen, more commonly called the “Van Gogh Bridge”. The Roman arena and the Alyscamps cemetery were also immortalized in several paintings.
In the 19th century, commercial activity on the docks and riverbanks was still flourishing. Van-Gogh, who mainly stayed clear of the local population, explored the city and its surroundings, unceasingly painting the transformations of nature in spring, the landscapes, workers in the fields or on the river. All that he saw inspired him and became art. He would rest his easel on the riverbank whenever the wind allowed him to.
Arles and the Rhone, the people of Arles and their river, a history of love and mistrust depending on the water’s mood. Although Van Gogh’s creations in this period were full of inspiration, Van Gogh’s style was not widely accepted at that time, and the painter did not successfully sell any works in the local area, so that today, there are no Van Gogh’s work on permanent display in the collection of the local gallery.
The Arles Vincent Van Gogh Foundation justly pays homage to his work while at the same time exploring its impact on today’s artists. The Dutch master’s paintings are placed in perspective with the works of contemporary artists, thus creating a fertile dialog, based on questioning and reflection. A marked walking tour is described in a brochure on sale in the Tourism Office, to be followed at your own rhythm.
Van Gogh in Arles
On 20 February 1888, Vincent van Gogh arrived in Arles. Tired of the busy city life and the cold northern climate, Van Gogh had headed South in search of warmer weather, and above all to find the bright light and colours of Provence so as to further modernize his new way of painting.
During the more than fourteen months which he spent in Arles, he created a multitude of paintings and drawings, many of which are nowadays seen as highlights of late 19th century art. At first, the weather in the South was unseasonably cold, but after a few weeks Van Gogh was able to set out and discover subjects for his works. Vincent had a collection of Japanese prints, had read about Japan and become a great admirer. He had hoped to find the light, colours and harmony in the South that he knew from these prints.
Painting the human figure had always been one of Van Gogh’s most important artistic goals, and he had a special love for peasant paintings. In Arles, he decided that he wanted to modernize this genre, by choosing the subject of the sower. He also started to paint very Japanese paintings of blossoming trees and the Pont de Langlois. During the summer he drew and painted harvest scenes.
In May, Van Gogh rented the yellow house, in which he lived and set up his studio. He had hopes of establishing a collective studio in the South, were other painters would join him. On 23 October, Paul Gauguin came to Arles. The two artists lived and painted together for two months. It was a time filled with great mutual inspiration, but in the end their characters and artistic temperaments clashed.
On 23 December, Van Gogh suffered a mental breakdown – probably a first sign of his illness – and cut off a part of his left ear. Gauguin left, and Van Gogh’s dream of a studio with other painters was shattered. He spent some more time in the hospital after a second breakdown in February 1889. He continued to work in Arles for a few more months, but had himself interned voluntarily in the asylum in Saint-Rémy on 8 May 1889.
Van Gogh pay tribute to the marvellous light and a newly discovered world of colour, his work from Arles is often associated with the colour yellow, which plays a prominent role in his works from that period. Van Gogh worshipped the Provençal yellow sun and its sulphur or gold coloured light. It flooded the landscape and enabled him to give his paintings the strong, unbroken colours that he had yearned for.
With his new command of bright and strong colours, Van Gogh was now able to work both in subtle contrasts (such as yellow and green), and with the strongest colour contrasts possible. That last one is a complementary contrast: red against green, blue against orange, or yellow against purple. At the same time, he experimented with the lively brushstroke of the impressionists, as well the different styles and techniques used by his avant-garde friends. He came to admire Adolphe Monticelli, who painted in strong colour contrasts with a heavy impasto. Japanese prints taught him how to work with large areas of bright colour.
Thus armed with a vast new array of possibilities, Van Gogh came to Arles to further develop his modern style. The bright light of Provence led him to even more daring colour adventures, with Delacroix as his guide. Complementary contrasts enabled him to make his colours even more expressive. The Sower of June 1888 was an ambitious attempt to make a modern figure piece by means of colour. Van Gogh used the complementary contrast of a purple field and a yellow sky, and then painted yellow lines around the field, and purple lines around the sky.
Amongst his fellow avant-garde artists, Van Gogh stands out because of his forceful impasto. Artists like Gauguin, Bernard and other painters working in Pont-Aven, worked with prominent areas of colour, too, but they preferred to use a subdued, flat brushstroke. Van Gogh’s work from Arles is the opposite. In most of his best works a prominent role is given to the handling of the paint. He sometimes used a more structured pattern of brushstrokes, such as in the background of his Still life with Sunflowers. In other works he applied the paint in a more spontaneous, lively yet always controlled manner. In all cases, colour and brushstroke merged together to create Van Gogh’s uniquely expressive style.
Major works and its locations
Vincent arrived in Arles on 20 February 1888. Vincent was highly productive during this period and made numerous paintings and drawings in and around Arles. He developed an expressive, individual painting style characterised by bold colours and dynamic brushstrokes. In Arles, he met the artists Eugène Boch, Dodge MacKnight and Christian Mourier-Petersen and befriended the postal official Joseph Roulin. Paul Gauguin came to join him in October, and they worked together in Arles for two months.
Arles old town
During his career as an artist, Van Gogh always showed a remarkable lack of interest in cities’ old monuments, and sought his inspiration mainly in everyday life and relics from the past. There is no ancient monuments in Arles feature in Van Gogh’s work. He painted ordinary subjects such as a viaduct beneath the railway, and bridges, most notably the iron structure of the former Trinquetaille bridge. The banks of the river Rhône within the city found their way into his work, as did the Canal Roubine du Roi, just northeast of the town. Van Gogh had an unusual talent when it came to transforming such simple themes into original and captivating compositions.
He admired the serene qualities of parks and gardens, and painted both in Arles. The public garden next to the Roman Theatre greatly appealed to him and was the subject of four paintings, which he called “The Poet’s Garden”. Several of his cityscapes became true icons in his oeuvre. The small house on Place Lamartine, in which he lived, is the central feature of the painting commonly known as “The Yellow House”, but which Van Gogh called The Street. A remarkable scene was painted at night: Van Gogh set up his easel near the Café de la Nuit on the Place du Forum and painted the café, bathing in yellow light, against a starry sky.
During Gauguin’s stay in Arles, the two artists made several paintings of the Alyscamps on the south eastern edge of the old town. All of them are very atmospheric autumn scenes, as is appropriate for this ancient necropolis. During his second stay in the hospital of Arles, the 16th-17th century Hôtel-Dieu, Van Gogh made a painting and a drawing of its beautiful courtyard, recording his surroundings during this difficult stage of his life. A view of Arles is included among many other paintings and drawings, such as “Field with Flowers near Arles”, in which irises in the foreground dominate the image. In these works, the town functions as a backdrop to the landscape.
The yellow house
On 1 May 1889, Vincent rented part of a yellow stucco-faced building on Place Lam artine at a rate of 15 francs a month. He used it as a studio at first, and on 1 September he began living there too. He called the building the Yellow House and planned to lavishly decorate its interior with paintings. Vincent wanted to turn the house into a “studio of the south” where artists could live and work together. He needed company and a sounding board, and living with others was more economical besides. Using money from his brother Theo, he had new furniture made – two beds, chairs and a table – and got the house connected to the gas supply so he could work by artificial light in the evenings and in winter. He created a number of works for the purpose of decorating the house; they included four sunflower paintings, The Public Garden with a couple strolling, The Tarascon Stagecoach, The Night Café, The Yellow House (“The Street”), Starry Night over the Rhône and The Trinquetaille bridge.
During his first two months in Arles, Vincent stayed in a room at the Carrel hotel and restaurant, owned by Albert Carrel and his wife, Cathérine Carrel-Garcin. The hotel was a two-storey building with a small roof terrace and a first-floor balcony. With a renewed desire to work, Vincent produced three studies in his first three days in Arles: An old woman of Arles, Landscape with Snow and View of a Butcher’s Shop.
Café de la Gare
On 7 May 1889, Vincent took a room at the Café de la Gare on Place Lamartine at a rate of one franc per night. He had recently begun using the Yellow House as a studio. And so Vincent spent three nights amid the “night owls”, painting The Night Café. He used the complementary colours of red and green in an effort to represent “the terrible human passions”. In the painting, Joseph Ginoux can be seen standing beside the billiard table, wearing white. Paul Gauguin, who came to stay with Vincent at the Yellow House in mid-October, also painted the café. His version shows Marie Ginoux sitting at a table in the foreground.
In mid-May 1888, Vincent wrote to his brother Theo that he had found a good restaurant where he could eat for a franc every night. He was referring to Vénissac on Place Lamartine, next door to the Café de la Gare, where he was staying. Vincent liked Vénissac’s food and ate there every day, at least during August and September. The restaurant’s interior, including the floor and the wallpaper, was uniformly grey, reminding Vincent of the work of the Spanish painter Diego Velázquez.
Vincent made friends with the postal official Joseph Etienne Roulin, who lived nearby with his family. To thank Roulin for posing for a portrait, Vincent gave him the painting as a gift. Vincent was delighted with his new model and decided to paint Roulin’s entire family. In all, he made more than 20 portraits of them. Augustine Roulin, Joseph’s wife, served as the model for La Berceuse. Vincent made at least five versions of the painting and gave the Roulins one.
Vincent went a few times to the bullfights that were held every Sunday in the Arles arena. According to Vincent, although things sometimes went wrong, it was not much of a problem for the spectators, since the amphitheatre had been designed so that the seats were high up. Vincent was impressed by the crowds that flocked to see the bullfights. That year, Vincent painted a crowd of spectators in Arena at Arles.
On Sunday 27 January 1889, Vincent visited the Folies-Arlésiennes, a theatre and dance hall on Rue Victor Hugo, to see a company from Marseille perform the play La Pastorale. He found the performance “amazing” and was particularly impressed by one actress. Vincent enjoyed the outing, and did a painting of the theatre, The Dance Hall in Arles, which is now in the Musée d’Orsay.
Café du Forum
In September 1888, Vincent painted the world-famous Café Terrace at Night. He made the work on location outside the Café du Forum on Place du Forum. Vincent discussed the richest yellows and oranges, the way of getting away from the conventional black night with a poor, pallid and whitish light.
The topography of many of the landscape paintings and drawings, which Van Gogh made in the countryside of Arles, can no longer be established with any certainty. Since his time, orchards and wheat fields have disappeared, as well as farmhouses and other elements of Van Gogh’s images.
Located just over two kilometres to the south of Arles, the Pont de Réginelle (or Réginal), commonly known as the Pont de Langlois after the former bridge-keeper, was a particularly favourite subject for Van Gogh during March-May 1888. It features in several paintings and drawings. With its elegant shape and slender structure, the Pont de Langlois was eminently suitable for the harmonious Japanese atmosphere, which Van Gogh sought to express in his work. The bridge has since been destroyed, but then replaced by a similar construction.
The building of the medieval abbey of Montmajour took several centuries on a 43-metre high hill, five to six kilometres to the northeast of Arles. Van Gogh, who never minded a long walk, discovered it soon after his arrival. Although usually not enthused by ancient monuments, he was captivated by these ruins set in the middle of a large plain and surrounded by an impressive landscape.
In the second week of May 1888, the abbey and its environs became the subject of a set of seven drawings, known as the “Montmajour series”. These middle-size drawings were followed by a second Montmajour series in July. On that occasion, Van Gogh worked on larger sheets and created six drawings, which are real highlights in his oeuvre.
Montmajour overlooks the large plains of La Crau, which can be seen in two of these six drawings. La Crau also became a major inspiration for Van Gogh. In his famous “Harvest”, made as a painting and also three drawings, he depicted the harvesting of wheat, while adding a very visible blue cart as the focal point of the works. One of the last paintings he made around Arles was “La Crau with Peach Trees in Blossom”.
On 23 December 1888, after cutting off part of his ear and giving it to a prostitute in a fit of madness, Vincent was admitted to hospital in Arles. He was treated by Dr Félix Rey. As soon as he felt better, Vincent resumed painting, producing works including a portrait of Dr Rey, which he gave the doctor as a keepsake. Vincent remained in hospital until early May. He experienced long periods of lucidity and was therefore given permission to paint outdoors, and he took full advantage of it. During his stay in hospital, he painted many landscapes, along with works like Ward in the Hospital and The Courtyard of the Hospital.
Bridge of Langlois
On the outskirts of town, the Pont de Réginelle (or Réginal), popularly known as Pont de Langlois, spanned the Arles–Bouc canal. The spot attracted Vincent, with its combination of southern light, a Dutch-looking landscape and the oddly shaped bridge, which he thought looked Japanese style, and he felt compelled to paint it. He was evidently pleased with his first painting of the bridge. Vincent did five more paintings and two drawings of the bridge during the spring of 1888.
Vincent made four paintings of the Alyscamps, a Roman necropolis a few hundred metres from the centre of Arles. He painted the works in late October 1888, while Paul Gauguin was staying with him in the Yellow House. One pair, Les Alyscamps (‘Leaf Fall’), hung in Gauguin’s room.
In the first week of June 1888, Vincent went to the fishing village of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, approximately 40 kilometres south of Arles on the Mediterranean Sea. He longed to see “a blue sea and a blue sky” and hoped to spend some time drawing figures. Thus, on 30 or 31 May, he took his drawing and painting materials and travelled by carriage through the Camargue nature reserve to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. He planned to concentrate on drawing: he wished to practise doing it in a more deliberate and exaggerated way. On 5 June, he returned to Arles with nine new drawings and three new paintings. In his studio, he turned some of the drawings into paintings.
Vincent made countless trips to Montmajour, a hill with an abbey on top a few kilometres northeast of the city centre. He discovered it two weeks after his arrival in Arles while exploring the surrounding countryside, and he expressed the desire to go there soon to paint. Vincent considered the hill beautiful, with its abbey and its view over the flat landscape. Though Vincent evidently refused to be daunted by conditions on the hill, the stiff wind forced him to concentrate on drawing rather than painting: when he set up his easel, the canvas vibrated in the wind. The drawings Vincent did on Montmajour, mostly using a reed pen, are some of his best.
Vincent gave drawing and painting lessons to Paul Eugène Milliet, a second lieutenant in the third regiment of the Zouaves, a light infantry corps. Vincent painted a portrait of the young lieutenant. The two men became friends; their activities together included an outing to Montmajour hill near Arles in July 1888. When Milliet travelled to northern France in mid-August 1888, he delivered 36 of Vincent’s artworks to Theo in Paris.