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VAN GOGH IN ARLES
by Bill Kimberlin
April 5, 2007



 

     In 1888 Vincent van Gogh was in the town of Arles, in the south of France. He stayed about fifteen months and painted a number works that mark the zenith of his art. On my trip there I sought out the locations of his famous paintings to see for myself what the actual sites looked like. I have found that one can learn a lot by such visits. For instance, to see the architecture of Gaudi in the context of the Spanish city of Barcelona is to understand his work. The same, I think, can be said for Picasso and Salvador Dali. Reading a biography or an art critic tells one much less than seeing what the artist was responding to, at least in my case.

 

     On a visit to Connecticut once, I toured Eugene O’Neal’s family summer home. O’Neal spent a life time writing plays about his tortured family. Yet, as a boy in this home I learned what most upset him. He was mortified that he had to mow the lawn in full view of his neighbors. What magnificent obsessions adolescence sometimes drives in us. Both art and people can, I think, be best understood by learning where they came from.

 

     With these thoughts in mind, I explored the locations in Arles that van Gogh painted and tried to stand where he must have stood. I then took photos from what was his perspective of those places, as they are today. Above is the painting “The Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum”, and on the left is my photo of the scene today.

 

     The art books tell us that The Cafe Terrace “stands as one of the painter's most remarkable works. It is also, without question, one of the most famous produced in van Gogh's brief but prolific career. This work is the first in a trilogy of paintings which feature starlit skies. Starry Night Over the Rhone came within a month, followed by the popular Starry Night painted the next year in Saint-Rémy.”

 

     Van Gogh tells us, in a letter to his sister...

 

     "In point of fact I was interrupted these days by my toiling on a new picture representing the outside of a night cafe. On the terrace there are tiny figures of people drinking. An enormous yellow lantern sheds its light on the terrace, the house and the sidewalk, and even causes certain brightness on the pavement of the street, which takes a pinkish violet tone. The gable-topped fronts of the houses in a street stretching away under a blue sky spangled with stars are dark blue or violet and there is a green tree. Here you have a night picture without any black in it, done with nothing but beautiful blue and violet and green, and in these surroundings the lighted square acquires a pale sulphur and greenish citron-yellow colour. It amuses me enormously to paint the night right on the spot. They used to draw and paint the picture in the daytime after the rough sketch. But I find satisfaction in painting things immediately."

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