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Artists In Exile: Vincent van Gogh in Saint-Rémy


In our Artists In Exile series, we have tended to focus on individuals who have, for whatever reason, been forced to leave their homeland. Here we have something quite different: an artist whose exile was self-imposed. In the spring of 1889, following months of treatment in a hospital in Arles, Vincent van Gogh committed himself to the Saint-Paul de Mausole psychiatric institution in Saint-Rémy de Provence. He knew he was ill, but he also knew that the area would afford him the isolation necessary for good work to flourish. And so it did. Between attacks, Vincent made a number of paintings and drawings, first of the hospital gardens, and later of the olive groves and cypresses on the foothills of the Alpilles mountains.

Works such as Wheatfield After A Storm (1889) ripple with inner conflict. Vincent’s life in Saint-Rémy was a constant struggle against the mental institution he believed was necessary for his recovery and the sense that there was a world of overwhelmingly beautiful scenery just beyond its boundaries. The artist’s attempt to preserve his health was frequently hampered by forbidden adventures into the broad expanses beyond the town, which he seems to have found fairly easy to justify – probably because he believed himself to be quite unlike his fellow patients. “I will not conceal from you that being here is highly tedious,” he told his brother Theo, “Because of the monotony, and because the company of these unfortunates who do absolutely nothing is enervating.”

Van Gogh came south after his life in Paris became unpalatable. He’d travelled to ‘The City of Light’ in the Spring of 1886 to get a better understanding of what was happening in the world of art. For the first time in his life, he found himself in the company of like-minded individuals: artists such as Emile Bernard, Paul Signac, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Over the next few years, his confidence as an artist blossomed. However, he quickly tired of his Bohemian existence and decided to set off on a 15-month sojourn to Arles, where he intended to establish an arts colony in The Yellow House. Van Gogh had been lured to Provence by the prospect of colour and balmy air – a far cry from the urban swill of Paris. Unfortunately, when he arrived in February 18888, he found Arles covered in 60 centimetres of fresh snow. The hushed tones of the landscape reminded him of the Japanese prints he’d been studying not long before his departure. In fact, Vincent saw the countryside outside Arles as the Western equivalent of Japan, which is perhaps why many of his works from this point onwards carry the same delicacy of those formative prints.

It wasn’t long before Vincent’s life in Arles turned sour. He spent much of his time in the southern town attempting to form a centre for artistic expression in The Yellow House. When Paul Gauguin, who van Gogh greatly admired, suggested that he might join the artist there, he was overjoyed and spent the next week preparing the space for Gauguin’s uncertain arrival. When he did finally arrive, it quickly became apparent that the collaboration wasn’t going to work. The breakdown in Vincent’s relationship with Gauguin and the failure of The Yellow House culminated in the infamous ear incident on December 23rd, 1888. After a period of hospitalisation in Arles, he returned to The Yellow House, but his neighbours complained about his presence there. With his condition getting worse by the day, Vincent decided to admit himself to the psychiatric clinic in Saint-Rémy.

‘The Yellow House’ by Vincent van Gogh. (Credit: Van Gogh Museum)

Van Gogh spent much of his time in Saint-Rémy on the cusp of sanity. In his letters, he jumps from remarkably lucid accounts of his own mental state to moments of intense irrational horror. Though he made no mention of suicide, Vincent was aware of how badly he needed help: “At present, this horror of life is less strong already and the melancholy less acute,” he wrote to Jo van Gogh-Bonger. “But I have no will, hardly any desires or none at all, and hardly any wish for anything belonging to ordinary life, for instance almost no desire to see my friends, although I keep thinking about them. That is why I have no yet reached the point where I ought to think of leaving here; I should have this depression elsewhere.”

By the late summer of 1889, Vincent’s doctors felt confident enough in his condition that they allowed him to make visits to Arles and the surrounding countryside. The timing could not have been more perfect. The harvest season was van Gogh’s favourite time of year to paint, and he retained his urge to make new work even when fresh schizophrenic attacks occurred. That being said, works like The Reaper reveal a melancholy not yet abated. “Work his going pretty well,” he wrote in September 1889. “I am struggling with a canvas begun some days before my indisposition, a Reaper, the study is all yellow, terribly thickly painted, but the subject was fine and simple. For I see in this reaper – a vague figure fighting like a devil in the midst of the heat to get to the end of his task – I see in him the image of death, in the sense that humanity might be the wheat he is reaping. So it is – if you like – the opposite of that sower I tried to do before. But there’s nothing sad in this death, it goes its way in broad daylight with a sun flooding everything with a light of pure gold.”

Vincent was convinced that the “dumb fury” of his work would cure him, and many of the artist’s most beloved works were made during this period. Marigolds, cypresses, irises, roses: all were painted with such tenderness, as though their beauty might carry him into the future. At the same time, many of van Gogh’s sketches from Saint-Remy reveal a regressive desire to return to the North. This submission to the grip of the past saw Vincent develop a fascination with the peasant families he saw walking beneath the enormous tree trunks of the Boulevard Mirabeau. In both the sketches and the final portrait, there is a sense of the artist reaching out his hand but scooping only empty air. In the absence of human contact, van Gogh set about reimagining religious works such as Rembrandt’s Raising of Lazurus and Delacroix’s Pietà. Vincent’s own description of these works implies a feverish desire to escape himself: “I improvise colour on it, not, you understand, altogether myself, but searching for memories of their pictures – but the memory, ‘the vague consonance of colours which are at least right-feelin’ – that is my own interpretation…My brush goes between my fingers as a bow should on a violin, and absolutely for my own pleasure.”

Eventually, Van Gogh gave into nostalgia for the North, leaving Provence behind once and for all on 27th July 189. Leaving the Ravoux Hotel in Auvers with his painting gear in his satchel, Van Gogh found a quiet spot away from prying eyes. As soon as he was out of sight, he pulled a dutch revolver from the bag and shot himself in the chest. He died two days later, his brother Theo by his bedside.

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