Wheat Fields & Cypresses: Van Gogh at the Asylum
A Traveller's Tale by Carol Buxton
The Monastery of Saint-Paul de Mausole. Image: Emdee, CC BY-SA 3.0
On a bright May morning, much as it must have been a hundred and thirty years earlier, I walk up a quiet lane beneath tall pines, their needles soft underfoot, towards a gateway with buildings beyond. It is the entrance to Saint Paul-de-Mausole, formerly an asylum, near Saint Remy-de-Provence in southern France. I imagine that I see before me two figures, a stocky man with fox red hair and his companion, a taller man in an ill-fitting suit. Vincent Van Gogh arrived at the asylum on 8th May 1889, accompanied by his friend, Pastor Frédéric Salles. They had journeyed together from Arles, 25 miles to the south, where the artist had lived for the last fourteen months. He was to become the asylum’s most illustrious patient, but in 1889 he was simply one of 42 men and women known to the locals as ‘les aliènes - the insane. Most would never leave. Van Gogh had a history of irregular fits, during which his behaviour was unpredictable and could be violent. His most recent attack in Arles had ended with the terrible self-mutilation of cutting off part of one ear. He had voluntarily admitted himself to Saint Paul. The medical report written on admission by the director, Dr Théophile Peyron, deemed him to be subject to epilepsy, and to require long-term observation. There was little in the way of treatment for patients here other than restraint where necessary, fresh air, and hydrotherapy, in the form of a two-hour warm bath twice a week, which Van Gogh describes in letters to his brother, Theo, an art dealer who lived in Paris and supported him financially.
Entrance to the asylum at Saint Remy-de-Provence. Image: © Carol Buxton
Saint Paul was originally an Augustinian monastery built in the 12th and 13th centuries. Two long wings extending from each side of a cloister served the patients when the asylum was founded in 1789. It was run by monks who, in turn, became nuns in Van Gogh’s time. I walk its corridors and view a reconstruction of his bedroom: the original, now refurbished, is part of a modern psychiatric hospital closed to general visitors. The rest of the building is open daily. The asylum had provided single bedrooms and, as Theo had requested that he be allowed to paint, Van Gogh was given another room to use as a studio. His bedroom was on the upper floor of the east wing, and sparsely furnished: a bed, a chair, a table, and an iron-barred window. Through it he observed the sunrise and, below it, a wheat field that was to become one of his favourite motifs. Wheat Field, Sunrise (1889) was one of six painting that he selected to submit to the Les XX exhibition in Brussels in 1890, as a summary of his impressions of Provence. Of it, he says ‘I have tried to express calmness, great peace’ (Letter to Theo 9 May 1889).
Vincent van Gogh, Wheat Field, Sunrise (1889)
I look in the chapel and wander through the cloisters, but it is the garden that excites, the garden where those who could be let outside rested, walked, played cards, painted. A man in blue overalls and a yellow straw hat. He spent many hours here, turning the trees and flowers into some of his most glorious canvasses: blue, grey, green, yellow. On his first full morning he painted irises, their vibrant deep purple glowing as I pass, and wrote to Theo ‘It’s possible that I’ll stay here for quite a long time, never have I been so tranquil as here’ (9 May 1889). I take photographs trying to capture the changing hues.
A beautiful Iris in the garden of the monastery. Image: © Carol Buxton
Vincent van Gogh, Irises (1889)
Tranquillity and reinvigoration. The air is warm, and I am smitten with a feeling of utter joy, as he must have been in his lucid periods between attacks. He worked quickly, producing canvasses at an average of two per week, 143 in the 374 days that he spent here, regularly requesting replenishments of canvass and paint from Theo. Ultramarine, Zinc White, Orange Lead, Veronese Green. The dynamic swirls and sinuous lines of the paintings, often in thick impasto, create a turbulent vitality. Was he figuring his inner landscape in topographical terms, thinking in landscape and with landscape giving texture to his experience?
Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night (1889)
Even in bad weather, when the cold Mistral blew from the north, he was influenced by this place - the wheat knocked to the ground after a storm, the riven trees, the almond blossom, the rows of grey-green olive trees, the cypresses. In a letter to Theo dated 25 November 1889 he writes: ‘The cypresses still preoccupy me. I’d like to do something with them like the canvasses of sunflowers because it astonishes me that no one has yet done them as I see them’. He painted Study of Cypresses (1889) and Wheat Field and Cypresses in the same year. Perhaps the most famous cypress image is contained in the large canvas Starry Night, completed 18 June 1889, which he painted from memory in his studio, as he was confined to the building after dark. Here with the cypress tree are balls of moving light, the small town of Saint Rémy one mile to the south, with its church steeple, and stars with tails like comets.
The breeze finds the hem of my skirt. I hear the bleating of goats beyond the perimeter wall and the cicadas are calling. Timeless sounds. Beyond the fields rise the wild, jagged limestone hills of Les Alpilles, the backdrop of many of his paintings.
View from inside the asylum. Image: © Carol Buxton
The wheat field has long gone, renamed the Van Gogh Field and transformed into three smaller gardens, the colours changing with the seasons. Along the sides are tree-lined paths featuring reproductions of hismost well-known paintings situated in their place of execution.He had dreamt of creating an artists’ association in the south of France and in order to realise this aspiration, Valetudo, an art therapy programme was established in 1995, its workshops and gallery set up within the cloister. The result is the creation of works expressing the inner journey of patients currently in care at Saint Paul. Their works are exhibited and then put out sale near the small gift shop.
There were times that Van Gogh could not paint outside, or could not paint at all, due to periodic attacks and illness. By early 1890 the attacks worsened and he believed that his stay there was not helping to make him better. On 16 May 1890 he moved to Auvers-sur-Oise just north of Paris, where, on 27 July 1890, he shot himself in a wheat field, and died two days later.
Van Gogh’s letters may be found at www.vangoghletters.org
About the Author
Carol decided to become a writer at the age of six, but more practical roles took precedence. Taking early retirement from charity administration, she gained a degree in English Studies & Creative Writing at Ruskin College, Oxford, and a Masters in English Literature from King’s College, London, which rekindled this early ambition.
An avid traveller, she likes to combine travelling with her passion for listening to, and performing, classical music.