Visiting the psychiatric hospital Saint-Paul de Mausole, where Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh spent one year, in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, moved me to tears. I’m a big fan of his bold colors and mad brush strokes, and I am aware of his tragic story.
Van Gogh moved to the south of France in 1888, after two years in Paris, to paint the vibrant light and colors of the region. And while his art benefited from it – the year in St. Rémy is considered his most productive – his mental health did not.
While a patient in the hospital, van Gogh painted the landscape outside ‘through the iron-barred window,’ as he wrote to his brother Theo. Copies of the originals now sit by it, in the small place that was his room. Between treatments, on the days he was allowed outside, he produced some of his most celebrated works: landscapes of the region and portraits of peasants during harvest. “Starry Night”, now one of the most famous and expensive paintings in the world (it’s valued at more than 100 million dollars), is from this period, as well as the iconic sunflowers. But despite the constant financial and emotional support of Theo, Vincent was checked out of the hospital by his doctor, who considered him cured. His suicide happened not long after, in 1890.
Saint-Paul de Mausole is now a museum that celebrates van Gogh’s life, and reproductions of his works are everywhere. The garden remains as beautiful and peaceful today as it was when he painted it. One can almost feel his presence, looking at the modest bed he slept on.
I can just imagine how surprised he would be, if he could come back, to learn that he is now considered one of the most influential figures in the history of art. Not bad for someone who never sold a single painting during his life.