A Wheatfields with Cypresses is my new header. This is another painting which Van Gogh repeated several times in St Remy de Provence, while being treated in the asylum there. It can be seen in the National Gallery in London.
We visited the former monastery of St Paul de Mausole, while in St Remy recently. The old romanesque chapel and surrounding buildings and gardens are quite exquisite. But I think here lies the problem with the current view of this great artist. The sterility of the tourist sites, the brightness of the colours in the paintings, the widespread imagery around the world hide the tragedy of Vincent’s life. We are aware of it but do not feel it.
In the former monastery at St Remy you start to feel the squalor, filth and loneliness of his existence. The museum describes how mental health was treated in the late nineteenth century, with some of its appalling, torture like acts, and how the artist was virtual prisoner in the asylum.
Most moving is the reconstruction of his bedroom. A tiny room with a filthy bed, a chair and a table. Oil paintings drying by the small window, which let virtually no light through. Paint tubes, solvents and white spirit giving off fumes as he slept. He was despised by most people who new him, with his irrational, often violent, behaviour wandering off obsessed by painting images that no one understood. Through all this, though, you sense his time at St Remy was a period of recovery and hope – only to be blown away at Auvers sur Oise a year later.
I was also moved by considering how the asylum staff of 1889 would have thought of charging €7 per person, one hundred and thirty years on, to walk the grounds where this troubled man had wandered with his paints and canvasses.