I may not be an art aficionado, but there are certain artists I love and Van Gogh is near the top of that list. I’m not sure why I enjoy his work so much, but the colors and composition have always spoken to me. That’s why I was so thrilled to see in person some of his most famous subjects when I spent the day in Arles, France.
I arrived in the picturesque town of Arles after a comfortable three-hour train ride from Toulouse. I knew my time there was short, but I was excited to be in the south of France, a place that has long captured my imagination. I’m still surprised that I completely forgot about the Van Gogh connection until I was literally face to face with the real inspirations for many of his most popular works.
When Van Gogh arrived in Arles in 1888, it was at yet another low point in his life. He was drinking too much, smoking too much and wanted to get away from Paris, which had simply worn him out. In Arles he hoped to start a utopian artists colony and invited friend Paul Gauguin to join him. What enchanted Van Gogh most about Arles and the surrounding countryside is also what captured my imagination – the vibrant colors and light. There’s just something unique about this small town in southern France that makes it an artist’s, any artist, dream.
On my first, and only, night in Arles I stepped out of my hotel and looked up just as the final rays of sunshine slipped away, the sky to be replaced by a moon and stars the likes of which I’d never seen. Colors danced in the sky as the bright orbs shone and right then at that instant I realized why Van Gogh had been so very much inspired by this place.
Arles ultimately though was not a place of light for Van Gogh, it was here where he so famously cut off part of his left ear. Gauguin had indeed decided to visit Arles, but instead of friendship dramatic tension grew between the two. Van Gogh resented Gauguin’s egotism but oddly enough also feared that he’d leave Arles, deserting Van Gogh. In a fit of sadness and panic Van Gogh detached part of his ear and staggered to Gauguin’s house, collapsing in a pool of blood. He was hospitalized and began suffering from even more mental problems until he finally left Arles in 1889 for an asylum in Saint-Rémy.
On a walking tour of town the next day I had the chance to see many of Van Gogh’s most famous works, but in person and not on canvas. I also noticed the spirit of the city, the energy and vibrancy and began to wonder if it was this feeling that really drew Van Gogh in as much as any cafe or garden.
Luckily I left town far differently than Van Gogh, I caught a train headed for Avignon and a new set of adventures. As the train plowed into the countryside I looked out the window and thought, not for the first time, what a marvelous place to have inspired so many people to do so many great things. If you haven’t been to rural France, you need to go to capture this same sense of wonder if for no other reason.