Vincent van Gogh, Provence and Chicago

Place de la République in Arles, France.

This week my husband and I enjoyed one of those serendipitous times when a slice of our travel experience merged with our Chicago life. We went to Chicago’s Art Institute to hear a lecture and view the current exhibit on Vincent van Gogh’s three bedroom paintings. The travel part (besides taking the commuter train from Wheaton to Chicago) recalls our visit a year ago to Saint-Remy de Provence, France.

At this time last year, Steve and I were on a river cruise in Provence. (I think it may be a rule that retired baby-boomers take at least one of these cruises.) One of our first stops was in Arles, France, where van Gogh spent a considerable time, renting the yellow house where he did so much work, including the paintings of his bedroom.  (Unfortunately, the house was destroyed in WWII, although many other Arles structures survive.) The yellow house was extremely important to van Gogh, who had decided to leave Paris, where he believed the “artistic lifestyle” was unhealthy and keeping him from continuing his work.

Arles happened to be chilly and drizzly the morning we were there, and we did not have as much time to explore as I would have liked. (This is the upside/downside of a river tour, you see a lot but the price for that is having to move on to the next stop.) Arles is much more than a temporary home for van Gogh.

According to Wikipedia, historians have dated settlement in Arles to as early as 800 B.C.  The city was an important Phoenician trading port before being taken by the Romans in 123 B.C.,  expanding its influence. Constantine I built baths in Arles; Constantine II was born here. 

Arles Roman Ruins21
Roman ruins in Arles.
Arles Coliseum 21
Roman Amphitheater, Arles. In the Middles Ages, the population declined significantly; this site became a fortress, the residents living inside.

The hospital in Arles where van Gogh was confined in December 1888 and January 1889 (after the legendary ear-severing episode) was later the subject of two of his paintings.

Van Gogh’s respite in Saint-Remy

After the tour of Arles, we took a side trip to Saint-Remy where van Gogh did so much painting. At the time, the artist’s mental health was very fragile, and he asked to be sent to Saint Remy de Provence to be confined at the Asylum of Saint Paul Mausole. Van Gogh’s mental health improved here, and he enjoyed an especially productive period artistically, completing almost 150 paintings and a number of drawings from May 1889 until May 1890.

Although the monastery is probably best known for van Gogh’s stay, it is considered a masterpiece of Provencal Romanesque art. The Cloister dates to the 11th -12th Century. One wing houses a museum which retraces the period when Vincent van Gogh was committed to Saint-Paul. One room in the museum recreates the bedroom from his home in Arles that van Gogh painted.

Gardens behind the monastery feature rows of lavender. Can you imagine what they look like in bloom?
This is the beautifully spare chapel.

Back to the Art Institute in Chicago

Van Gogh actually completed three paintings of this bedroom, each just a little different in size, color and detail. Today, one painting is part of the permanent collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, one is housed in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and the third in the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. The current exhibition in Chicago is one of the few times all three paintints have been shown together.


The Art Institute has done a remarkable job of pairing the paintings themselves with a multi media presentation of details that allow the visitor to closely examine the paintings, paying particular attention to those details that distinguish one painting from the other. I have not had an opportunity to research if or how other artists have painted subsequent versions of their own works. Monet was famous for the same scene in various lights, but that was not the intent with Van Gogh. 

If you are in Chicago or plan to be, this exhibit runs through May 10, 2016. Not surprisingly, it’s drawing record crowds, so check the website, for details on admission and useful tips for best times to visit.

Provencal bonus: Le Baux

LeBaux afar1
There’s a town here?

I could not share that day in Provence without including the rest of that side trip. After Saint-Remy, we went to the tiny, hilltop town of Le Baux. At this point I was really glad we were part of a tour. I do not think we could have found LeBaux on our own!

A diminutive fortress carved from a rocky outcrop in the Alpilles Mountains, LeBaux enjoys a long history. Traces of civilization here date to 6000 B.C. In the Middle Ages the area was a feudal stronghold. In the 15th century, the ruling lords of Baux were replaced by the barons of the Masons des Comtes de Provence. This ushered in a brief golden age for the Château, before it came under the control of the kings of France. From the 16th century on, various family feuds and wars of religion brought on the decline of the town. In 1633 Louis XIII agreed to the removal of the fortifications which, according to the townspeople, provided hiding places for rebels. In the early 19th century, bauxite was discovered here (hence the name) and extensively mined until it was exhausted in the late 20th century.

LeBaux no tourists1
Without tourists.
LeBaux tourists1
With tourists.

Today the commune or town is dedicated to tourism.  The population in the upper part of the town is just 22 and 436 in its entirety. Le Baux welcomes over 1.5 million tourists each year. Honestly, I struggle with places like this; it is now simply a tourist destination. On the other hand, it’s lovingly preserved to demonstrate history and culture. How else could we experience this?

This was just one day in Provence, which I clearly loved. I look forward to a return trip at a much slower pace. Have you been there? What did you think?

See you next time! 

5 thoughts on “Vincent van Gogh, Provence and Chicago

  1. Very interesting. One of my big regrets was never going to France after studying it all those years. Was scheduled to go in 1968, but I had to cancel. My best buddy Janet Smith was able to go. Sounds like a lively trip and your descriptions are so vivid! Thanks


  2. I love these “mini-trips” you offer through your blog! Thank you! I know I enjoyed my time in Carcasonne, France, which had similar long-ago history.


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