After cutting off part of his left ear in Arles, Vincent van Gogh voluntarily committed himself to Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, a psychiatric asylum in Saint-Rémy de Provence. The year was extremely difficult for Van Gogh. Although he was incapacitated at times, it was also one of his most creative periods and he produced over 150 paintings during his year at Saint-Rémy. When he was able to paint, he produced many of his best works. His landscapes from this period are particularly groundbreaking.
As long as he remained stable, the doctors allowed Vincent to paint and he converted an adjacent cell into a studio. Initially, he was not allowed to leave the asylum grounds. He painted what he saw from the room (minus the bars on the window). We saw the asylum’s walled garden replete with irises, lilacs, and ivy-covered trees. Having seen Van Gogh’s paintings, it was hauntingly familiar.
Although it’s not fancy or high-tech, the exhibits teach you about Van Gogh’s life, his mental illness, how he came to Arles, his treatment there, how mental illnesses were treated at the time and his painting. On our way out to walk the grounds, he said that Van Gogh is now his favorite painter (I’m not sure that he had one before).
Irises exemplifies Van Gogh’s trademark vivid colors and daring brush strokes. It was one of his early paintings there. Influenced by Japanese wood blocks, it lacks the higher tension in his later works. He called it “the lightning conductor for my illness” because he believed that he could avoid further breakdowns by continuing to paint. Unfortunately this was not so and after painting this, he suffered his first major “attack” at the asylum.
When he was permitted to leave the grounds, he painted the nearby wheatfields, olive groves, and cypress trees of the surrounding countryside. The Olive Trees, by Vincent Van Gogh, depicts an olive grove just outside the grounds of the asylum in Saint-Rémy.
The museum has plaques at spots where Van Gogh painted, explaining the painting and the view. They make well-known spots easy to find. Some spots are so iconic you immediately recognize them even without the plaques. Seeing the olive groves or the beds of irises, we were filled with awe at Van Gogh’s ability to capture the feeling and essence of them.
We went to St. Rémy not knowing what to expect. Although it was raining to hard to see much of the town, it was a wonderful surprise and a powerful, moving experience (kind of like Van Gogh’s paintings). It was something we will remember forever and we even learned a little something.