Fading light

Canvassing the final steps of a tortured genius

Email|Print| Text size + By Robert Garrett
Globe Correspondent / June 3, 2007

SAINT -RÉMY -- Vincent van Gogh's hopes were riding high when he came to the South of France in 1888. Fueled by coffee, cigarettes, and alcohol, he painted feverishly, producing 187 canvases in 15 months. {bull} His passion for work kept his inner demons at bay, but not forever. When he fell, he fell hard, and by 1889 he had entered Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum in the village of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. {bull} My thoughts are on van Gogh's troubles as I enter the tiny room set aside in his memory that is open to the public. I stare through the bars on the window. It was here at the asylum that art's patron saint of anguish and yearning painted "The Starry Night ." {bull} The sense of place is strong. This sky, the wheat field below, the Alpilles Mountains beyond the trees. It's a view that was familiar to van Gogh, who voluntarily admitted himself here, and felt safe in this refuge from the world. Although I feel sad as I gaze outside, I'm also glad -- surprisingly uplifted -- to see how big the window is, how large the sky looks.

The Dutch post-Impressionist journeyed south for this sky. He came for the sun, for the light, for what he called the "high yellow note" that transformed his painting. The first town he lived in was Arles, 15 miles from Saint-Rémy. He rented a yellow house on the corner of Place Lamartine , just outside the ancient town walls, a house he envisioned, with woefully doomed optimism, would become an artists' colony after his friend Paul Gauguin joined him.

To follow in the footsteps of van Gogh (1853-90), it makes sense to start in Arles, as I did a couple days before going on to Saint-Rémy.

I went straight to Place Lamartine. I finally located where the house once stood, in front of what is now a brasserie. It took some doing, a bit of backtracking, until I was sure. France adores its heritage, historic markers abound, but I found no plaque marking the spot. It's as if Arles is still not ready to proclaim its van Gogh connection.

In his day (van Gogh arrived here in February 1888), 33 of his neighbors petitioned to get the "fou rouge" (crazy redhead) out of town. More than half a century later, an errant bomb from an Allied airplane, aimed at the occupying Germans, fell on the yellow house in 1944. It surgically removed the house, leaving the building behind it -- like a final punctuation in the unhappy relationship between the artist and the town.

The most obvious reminder today of van Gogh is the cafe he depicted not far from the Roman arena that dominates Arles. The cafe, painted yellow as in 1888, is a tourist magnet, located in a pleasant square. I stroll about town, visiting the 12th-century Church of Saint Trophime and the Roman ruins. Van Gogh, I recall, was uninterested in such artifacts. His passion lay not in the past, but in the eternal now as he saw it in modest subjects, like a sunflower or the face of his postman.

I search for the street of brothels van Gogh frequented. Everyone knows at least the outline of the story of van Gogh's self-mutilation. The night before Christmas Eve, after quarreling with Gauguin, he cut off the bottom of his left ear. He then went to a brothel and presented the bloody object to a prostitute named Rachel, asking her to cherish it.

Maybe it's morbid curiosity or a need to make my sympathy for van Gogh more real, but I want to see how far he walked from his house on that night. From Place Lamartine, I turn left after the town wall, then right on Rue des Ecoles, and I'm there. The brothels are gone, but the district is still seedy, graffiti scrawled on walls, squat stone buildings. It's only a few hundred paces from the square, but I feel like I'm off the far end of any tourist map -- and a step closer to the artist's life.

I go to Saint-Rémy and talk with Jean-Marc Boulon , chief psychiatrist at Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, where van Gogh stayed for a year. It's now a hospice for women with emotional problems. Built around a 12th-century cloister, the hospital now has a separate tourist entrance to the van Gogh room. The patients in the hospital treatment wing are encouraged to take art or music classes as part of their therapy.

"This is the one place van Gogh was truly welcomed," says Boulon, a lifelong enthusiast of the artist. Boulon praises the enlightened physician who was medical director of the asylum then, Théophile Peyron. He gave van Gogh a second room where he could paint and let him set up his easel in the fields outside, accompanied by an attendant, when the artist felt well.

Formal treatment at the asylum was limited to communal baths, typically with relaxing warm water, though cold water was effective for agitated or violent patients. Bathtubs from the era are displayed near the "reconstituted" van Gogh room. The actual asylum room the artist inhabited, once located nearby, was destroyed during renovations several decades ago.

Among the theories of van Gogh's illness is manic depression, aggravated by epileptic attacks and the venomous absinthe he drank. Between crises, the artist was lucid and not "crazy." No one who reads his gloriously eloquent letters to his brother Theo , an art dealer, can doubt that.

Boulon describes his own troubled childhood, and how as a young boy he found comfort by copying reproductions of van Gogh's art. As an adult and professional healer, Boulon says he has come full circle at this place, and is "paying [his] debt" to the artist. Van Gogh's presence is in every stone of the hospital and every blade of grass in the garden outside where he painted, says the psychiatrist. "I'm breathing it every day I work here."

Outside the hospital, I stop at a grove of olive trees. Saint-Rémy has become a retreat for the wealthy, and private villas have replaced much of the farmland from the artist's time, so it's hard to get access to the fields and mountains van Gogh once roamed.

But no matter, I don't need to walk far, because olive trees were a favorite subject . I step close to one and examine its intricate leaves and tendrils. The olive tree holds light and shadow like no northern tree I've seen. Van Gogh's passion for the wonder of the everyday world is right here before my eyes.

Van Gogh eventually grew restless, got his release from the asylum, and headed north to the pretty little village of Auvers-sur-Oise outside Paris. There he was happy and productive for more than a month, "almost too calm," he wrote Theo. But in August 1890, the darkness descended for good. In a wheat field, van Gogh shot himself in the stomach, stumbled back to his room at a local inn, and two days later died, at 37.

I take a fast train north. I discover Auvers is still pretty and unspoiled . The sites van Gogh depicted are well marked with historic panels and the broad fields where he wandered above town are easy to get to. Ravoux's inn has been preserved and is open to the public. The tiny room on the upper floor where van Gogh died is like a large, skylit coffin.

I get a map from the tourist office and trek uphill on the crooked stairs that van Gogh could not resist depicting. Up ahead is the church he immortalized in tones of violet and cobalt blue.

Farther along is the cemetery. A gravedigger sees me entering the gate. He's used to tourists and points to the wall at the back. There I find two tombstones. One is Vincent's. The other belongs to Theo, the younger brother who supported Vincent and believed in him when no one else did. Less than six months after Vincent's death, Theo himself died, broken physically and emotionally.

In the rolling fields beyond the cemetery, I stop at a panel that displays a reproduction of van Gogh's painting of this very landscape, crows swirling over its field. On this day, I see and hear crows, as if the canvas has come to life.

The painting shows a dark, menacing sky, but on my visit it's a beautiful day, the sky is tranquil. I look up at the open, blue sky, and feel quietly grateful that van Gogh passed this way.

Robert Garrett can be reached at

If You Go

How to get there

By fast train from Paris Gare de Lyon to Avignon; local train or bus to Arles. Regular bus service Arles- Saint-Rémy.

Where to stay

Hôtel Le Calendal
5 rue porte de Laure, Arles

Hotel du Soleil
35 Ave Pasteur Saint-Rémy-de-Provence

Where to eat

Le Criquet
21 rue porte de Laure, Arles

Le Cilantro
31 rue porte de Laure, Arles
Lunch $27-$34, dinner $55-$67

What to do

Arles boasts a Roman arena and amphitheater, and the ancient cemetery of Alyscamp that van Gogh depicted. Admission $4-$6.

Saint-Paul de Mausole
Avenue van Gogh Saint-Rémy-de-Provence
Van Gogh's "reconstituted" room is the same size and near the one he actually inhabited, which was destroyed during renovations. Admission $6.75.

Avenue van Gogh Saint-Rémy-de-Provence
Fascinating ruins from antiquity. Admission $8.75.

Auberge Ravoux
Place de la Mairie Auvers-sur-Oise 011-33-01-30-36-60-60 Van Gogh's room, $6.75. Closed Monday-Tuesday.

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