Van Gogh’s Provence – In the Heart of a Nobody

picture of prints of paintings

“You see, for me that God of the clergy is as dead as a door-nail. But does that make me an atheist? Clergymen consider me one – so be it – but you see, I love, and how could I feel love if I were not alive myself or if others were not alive, and if we are alive there is something wondrous about it. Now call that God or human nature or whatever you like, but there is a certain something I cannot define systematically, although it is very much alive and real, and you see, for me that something is God or as good as God. You see, when in due course my time comes, one way or other, to die, well, what will keep me going even then? Won’t it be the thought of love?”

– van Gogh, at 28 years old, in a letter to his brother, Theo

Vincent van Gogh moved to Arles in southern France in 1888 and began his most prolific period of painting. Most of his masterpieces come from this time. I have always been an admirer of Van Gogh, not just of his paintings, but of his heart-wrenching letters to his brother, benefactor and best friend, Theo, in which he openly expressed his struggle as an artist to express the simple beauty he felt no one else had captured. He also wrote about his existential aims and the intense mental anguish which eventually took his life:

“What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart. That is my ambition, based less on resentment than on love in spite of everything, based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion. Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me. I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners. And my mind is driven towards these things with an irresistible momentum.”

re-creation of van gogh’s bedroom at the asylum in St. Remy

Saint paul asylum, a former convent, now museum and retirement home

Provence had been painted before van Gogh, but the Dutch master thought the earlier works were insufficient. He wanted to capture the subtle colors of the night sky, the unique movement of the cypresses in the mistral, and the love he had for his subject. Accurate scale was sacrificed in his effort to express something deeper, something often unnoticed. Like a poet-journalist, he was less factual but still revealed truths. My favorite:


wheat field with cypresses, 1889

my picture of the field by the asylum where van gogh painted olive trees

central courtyard of the asylum

Jessica and I spent an afternoon exploring the beautiful asylum and it’s peaceful grounds. We appreciated the contrast of colors, like the lavender next to bright yellow wheat and the tall sharp cypresses like teetering black obelisks cutting into the sunny blue sky. The place was so charming that we thought it might be worth losing an ear if it meant we could live there.

Arles at night

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view from van gogh’s bedroom

“Do you know what makes the prison disappear? Every deep, genuine affection. Being friends, being brothers, loving, that is what opens the prison, with supreme power, by some magic force. Without these one stays dead. But whenever affection is revived, there life revives.”