Provence through an Artist’s Eyes

In case it slipped your mind, today, June 20, is #YellowDay. “How wonderful yellow is. It stands for the sun,” said Vincent Van Gogh. Sunflowers, grainfields, buildings, lights at night. His work dispenses yellow in abundance. Why? The sun-drenched south of France inspired him, and art research has demonstrated how his palette changed dramatically when he moved there.

So many charming vistas on our recent sojourn to the area—fields of poppies, mountains, charming villages set alongside canals or on vertiginous slopes. One of my favorite excursions was our visit to Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, where our guide had planned a four-hour shopping trip. It was market day, and the streets and squares would be packed with vendors.

One hour of shopping is about fifty-nine minutes too many for me, so since our group was small (five Americans), my husband suggested driving a very short way out of town to visit Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, the mental hospital where Van Gogh spent most of the last year of his life (1889-1890). Thankfully, everyone else was on board with that plan too. The hospital wing where Van Gogh stayed is still used by patients, but the compound’s other portion has been turned into a museum (and gift shop) that includes a recreation of his room and overlooks the garden.

Because he’d admitted himself to the hospital, he had the run of the grounds, and was even given an extra room to use as a painting studio. Reproductions of some of the 150 paintings he made there are on display outdoors against the backdrop of those same scenes as they are today, including precise profiles of distant mountains.

Our guide had an interesting take on one of his most famous paintings, “Starry Night” (pictured). While it’s often cited as evidence of his disordered mental state, she said that, as a resident of Provence, the swirling air and twisted cypresses remind her of the mistral winds, which blow so strongly and even violently at certain seasons.

Viewing Van Gogh’s work is always exhilarating, but tinged with sadness for his life cut short and for the lack of appreciation he received during it. I took heart from the quotation of his and hope it accurately expresses his feeling. It’s a great philosophy for struggling creative people everywhere: “If I am worth anything later, I am worth something also now, for wheat is wheat, even if people think it is grass in the beginning.”

2 thoughts on “Provence through an Artist’s Eyes

  1. Wow! What a wonderful experience and insight in Van Gogh’s latter work and days! It’s also wonderful that tweaked plans lead to treasure.

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