Travel Story In the footsteps of Vincent Van Gogh in southern France

Photo of Stephen Scourfield

The town of Arles, in Provence, inspired some the post-impressionist's most famous artworks.

Under a starry, starry night of blue velvet and a nearly full moon, I walk the narrow, cobbled backstreets of Arles, looking for a cafe. 

I pass the Cafe d’Art, which hums with conversation: people lounging at tables in the warm evening; almost empty carafes, cigarettes held between index and forefinger; people in the street, talking; French chanteuse Soko’s voice drifts out: “I thought I saw your face, at the end of the alley ...”

I, too, can picture a face at the end of some sort of alley, though this is a gaunt visage under red hair and surrounded by swirling turquoise.

But Cafe d’Art’s not the cafe I am looking for, and neither are the few others I pass; similar scenes at almost midnight in this old town perched on the banks of the River Rhone.

Then, around a curve of buildings yellowed by night light, I come to a square. And there it is. The cafe from Vincent van Gogh’s painting, Cafe Terrace at Night. It is here, and still a cafe, in Place du Forum, Arles, in the Provence region of southern France.

The post-Impressionist painter was drawn by luminous light to this area of the Camargue, which is a sprawling wetland of more than 900km, and now registered as one of the world’s most significant wetlands sites.

Van Gogh arrived in Arles in February 1888 and in 15 months made 300 paintings and drawings. A frenzy. At one point he wrote that he had completed five paintings in three days on just bread and coffee.

He watched the colours changing hue and the low, amber-lit fields of grain; scenes also immortalised by Don McLean’s song Vincent: “Flaming flowers that brightly blaze; swirling clouds in violet haze.”

Many of Van Gogh’s most famous works were made here, including those of the cafe, the Yellow Room, Starry Night Over the Rhone, and L’Arlesienne.

And all around Arles there are spots which match the paintings, from a board on the banks of the river, which matches the position of Starry Night Over the Rhone, like the courtyard of the Old Arles Hospital (“L’Espace Van Gogh”), the former hospital where he went twice, once after cutting off part of his ear.

For Arles is also where his mental health deteriorated. After attending the hospital in Arles, he submitted himself to the St Paul Asylum at St-Remy- de-Provence. Here, from May 1889 to May 1890, surrounded by olive groves, with the insistent percussion of cicadas, the drifting scent of lavender and treated with cold “surprise baths” which, the medics believed, would “distract him from his predominant ideas”, he not only continued to paint, but produced Irises, which Alan Bond would eventually buy for $US53.9 million, and The Starry Night, one of his best known.

This is the 125th anniversary of the death of a man who wrote “they will surely recognise me and write about me when I’m dead and gone”, and was gone at the age of 37, reputedly from a self-inflicted gunshot wound a year after he left Saint-Remy-de- Provence.

Just a few days after the anniversary of Vincent’s death, having driven out the 32km from Arles, through fields of rice and sunflowers, I am standing in the room he occupied during that year at the hospital in St-Remy. More than that, I am looking through the window that he spent that year looking out from; turning the rural scenes framed by it into some of his best-known paintings.

I have known and loved those paintings since boyhood, and here I am, looking out through Vincent’s window, feeling, in a sense, that I am seeing through his eyes. I look out on the summer’s day.

During his 10 years of painting and drawing, Van Gogh managed to sell only one of the 1000 artworks he produced.

Today the shops of Arles are full of sunflower T-shirts, yellow cafe tea towels and his most famous paintings decorate homewares, from mugs to plastic placemats.

Considering Van Gogh was Dutch and lived in Arles for just a little over a year, it is interesting that his name is synonymous with it; that he has put it on the map.

Post-impressionist Paul Gauguin also painted Night Cafe in Arles in 1888, when he visited Van Gogh, but Pablo Picasso was, perhaps, as much drawn here, to stay at the Grand Hotel Nord Pinus, which is still in the Place du Forum, adjacent to the yellow cafe in the old town, partly by the presence of Van Gogh but also by his passion for bullfights.

And bullfighting remains a fundamental part of life in Arles.

Arles was founded in 46BC by the Roman emperor Julius Caesar but it was emperor Augustus, who followed him, who first developed the place, almost exactly 2000 years ago. With it was developed an oval amphitheatre which is still used today, just as bulls still run through the narrow streets.

There are three types of bullfighting, mostly using black Camargue bulls bred on some 200 local farms. Guide Elisabeth Lecomte explains that 80 per cent of the sport is Provencal style and “bull friendly”. Ribbons are tied to the bulls’ horns and young men give chase to collect these tassels. “Each bull performs six times a summer. They are really stars, ” Elisabeth says. “They have a retirement package and are buried looking towards the oceans.” The farms tend to be family businesses and some offer bed and breakfast to visitors.

But there are then Spanish and Portuguese-style corridas, during which bulls are killed. Bulls run through the streets of Arles three times a week through July and August, before the bullfighting.

One day in 1953, when Picasso was leaving the Arles arena after a bullfight, a young photographer, Lucien Clergue, showed him a portrait he had done, and this put in an instant foundation for their friendship and other portraits of Picasso that Clergue would take. With the success and celebrity this association helped to bring Clergue, who died last year, went on to found, in 1982, the National School of Photography in Arles, having launched Les Rencontres d’Arles in 1969 — a major annual photographic symposium for which Arles is still famous.

Picasso also painted a series of portraits of women in the traditional dress of Arles, using both his wife Jacqueline and photographer Lee Miller as models. For the women of Arles, the tradition is to wear wide ribbons on piled-up hair, a colourful dress and a lace shawl.

It has been a hot summer’s day in Arles but now the evening is cooling and I’m back in the old town, walking the narrow, cobbled streets, under an almost full moon.

At street level, pistachio-coloured shutters are shut but the glassless big ones on the first floor are thrown open, giving tantalising glimpses of high ceilings with beams as broad as a torso. Conversation, laughter and music stream out; often that low, smoochy French jazz, but from one, the lively sound of the Gipsy Kings, who grew up in Arles. Spanish flamenco meets gypsy rhapsody.

In the daytime, the town bustles. Visitors come to see the Van Gogh sites. River cruise ships pull up and often spend a full day and night here, giving plenty of time to explore.

In the daytime, everything is in full view. It’s all too clear. There’s no opportunity for shadow or echo. There’s only space for the literal; no space to form impression.

But here again this evening, settled at the Cafe Artesien in Place du Forum, I have time and space just to be in Arles and let it be in me. I have time to look for the gossamer threads of themes in air, and try to catch them and knit them together. I feel so comfortable in this town that Elisabeth calls “shabby chic”.

I turn again to a letter that Vincent Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo:

“Arles, 24 September 1888.

“I’m sure the town of Arles was infinitely more glorious in the past. Everything has a blighted, faded quality about it now.

“Still, if you look at it for a long time, the old charm re-emerges.

“And that is why I can see that I will lose absolutely nothing by staying where I am and contenting myself with watching things go by, like a spider in its web waiting for flies.”

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