We spent a lovely afternoon in Arles, following in the footsteps of Van Gogh and having a look at some of its impressive Roman monuments. Arles is a pleasant, compact town in western Provence, on the banks of the River Rhône, with avenues of plane trees and spacious squares, connected by narrow picturesque streets and pretty courtyards.
Arles is possibly most famous as the place where Vincent Van Gogh had a studio and painted many of his masterpieces. Most people know that he spent his latter years living in an asylum and that he cut off part of his own ear. But did you know that he was only 37 years old when he died? And did you also know that he only sold one painting during his lifetime, so the poor man knew nothing of the success he was to become.
Vincent Van Gogh
Having studied art in his native Belgium, in 1886 Van Gogh moved to Paris to live with his brother Theo, who was an art dealer. Here he met and was influenced by impressionist painters like Pissarro, Monet and Gaugin. At first he tried to imitate their techniques, but then started to develop his own style of painting that was bolder and more unconventional. Two years after arriving in Paris, he moved south to Arles with a dream of starting up an artists’ community and tried to persuade his friends to join him here, but only Gauguin followed up the invitation. Apparently Van Gogh wasn’t a very good housemate; he was of a nervous disposition, a difficult and argumentative companion and it didn’t really work out as he had hoped. He also drank and smoked a lot and neglected his health. The two artists had very different temperaments and approaches to their work – Van Gogh painted what he saw, whilst Gauguin believed in painting from his imagination. They would apparently stay up late into the night arguing and drinking. Gauguin ultimately left Arles, following an argument between the two men that ended with Van Gogh cutting some of his own ear off!
After this Van Gogh spent a while living in an asylum in nearby St Rémy de Provence and it was during this period that he was at his most prolific. Later, he moved back near to Paris under the care of a homeopathic doctor, but on 27 July 1890 he shot himself in the chest and died two days later. According to his brother, Theo, his last words were “The sadness will last forever” which seems to sum up his tortured and tormented emotional state for much of his short life.
Intense light and bright colours
Anyway, his style is characterised by lots of colour and movement, inspired by the intense light and bright colours of Provence. He often applied paint very thickly, sometimes straight from the tube, and so his works have an almost 3D quality to them with clearly visible brush strokes and great depth. The history books record him as one of the most famous and influential figures in the history of western art and many draw parallels between the urgency and movement in some of his works with his inner turmoil and emotional state.
The Van Gogh Trail
Arles understandably makes the most of its association with Van Gogh and you can go on guided or self-guided walks of the town that take you to some of the locations where his works were painted. The route and information are available from the tourist office in Arles or there is lots of information about it online. We had been tipped off that unfortunately some of them are now unrecognisable from the scene Van Gogh looked out on all those years ago and some are quite a distance from the city centre, so we decided to pick just three of the best, central locations and use those to introduce the girls to his work and learn a bit about post-Impressionism. One of the great things about doing this trip has been the chance for us to all learn together as a family. Being responsible for the girls’ education has meant that Andy and I have had to put a lot more effort into understanding the history or significance of places we have visited in order that we can teach them about it.
The Trinquetaille Bridge
We managed to find a parking spot down by the river and so we started with the Trinquetaille Bridge over the river Rhône. At each spot, you find an easel with a board that has a copy of the painting on it, the date it was painted and some further information. On this one there was a quote taken from one of Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo in 1888. A huge amount is known about Van Gogh and his work, his thoughts and feelings because he corresponded regularly with his family, particularly his brother Theo, and many of these letters survive today. Some of his works are not signed, but are referred to in detail in his letters and so historians have been able to work out the chronology and when and where they were painted.
This painting is quite grey and not as colourful as some of his other works, and in the letter he describes the scene to Theo; “…finally the bridge with all these steps is a grey morning canvas, the stones, pavers are grey, the sky a pale blue, colourful figures and a sickly tree with yellow leaves.” The canopy over the bridge has now gone, but otherwise the scene is just the same today as it was when Van Gogh painted it. And we were interested to observe that the small sapling in his painting is now a rather large plane tree.
The courtyard of the hospital in Arles
From here we walked further into the city to find the hospital where he was cared for after the ear cutting incident. This was my favourite out of all the locations and paintings. The little courtyard was so peaceful and was a riot of colour with lots of beautiful flowers against the backdrop of the yellow and white archways, just as it had been in Van Gogh’s day. Underneath is quoted a description of it from a letter he wrote to his sister, Wilhelmine, in 1889; “it’s a gallery of Arab-style arcades, bleached with lime. In front of these galleries an old garden with a pond in the middle and eight flower beds…an array full of flowers and Spring greenery.”
We lingered a while in the cool of the courtyard. There was a small souvenir shop by the entrance and a few people milling around taking photographs, but it was very quiet and restful.
Le Café Le Soir
Finally we navigated our way to the location of the famous Café terrace in the Place du Forum, now known as the Café Van Gogh. This was instantly recognisable, even though we were here in the afternoon and Van Gogh painted it in the evening. This was due its bright yellow colour, just as in the painting, and also to the fact that it still has the same style of canopy with the wrought iron swirls underneath. Unfortunately there are other cafes around it now with their tables and parasols out in the square too and so the scene is rather more crowded than in Van Gogh’s time.
Once again, the description is taken from his letter to his sister, Wilhelmine, in September 1888 and he tells her how the yellow lantern throws light on not only the terrace but on the front, the pavement, giving it a pinky purple tinge…..”it is a night without black, just beautiful blue and purple and green.”
After our mini Van Gogh trail, we made our way towards one of the biggest structures in the centre of town – a magnificent Roman arena. As we emerged from a narrow side street, there it was, towering above us in all its ancient grandeur, still as much at the heart of the city as it was in Roman times. It has surprised me to realise how many well preserved Roman remains there are in this region. In addition to the arena, Arles has a 12,000 seat Roman theatre and the remains of some Roman baths. You can also find Roman arenas and temples in nearby Nimes and Orange, which also has an incredibly preserved theatre dating from the time of Augustus Caesar (27 BC to AD 14). The area also boasts the worlds highest Roman monument, the 50m high Pont du Gard, and the remains of the huge Roman town of Glanum just outside St Remy de Provence.
The arena in Arles is 136m long, 107m wide and 21m tall and is still used today for concerts and bullfights. We sat in a Roman-style arena at Puy du Fou earlier on this trip and seeing the one in Arles made us realise just how accurate and true to life that modern reproduction was.
As we drove back to our campsite in Maussane Les Alpilles with thoughts of Van Gogh in our heads, I was struck by the deep blue of the sky and the dark green of the tall Cyprus trees that are dotted around the landscape here and could understand why he was so captivated and inspired by this region.