Hold on to your ear

Travel in Van Gogh's Footsteps Across France

The Yellow House is gone, but Vincent's spirit lives on.

By Bill Wiatrak January 24, 2020

Cafe Van Gogh in Arles.

As the car pulled out, I waited until the last possible moment to run through the gate so the driver wouldn’t see me. I half expected an alarm to sound. There were lots of cameras. Who sneaks into an insane asylum? Okay, I’ll admit, I wouldn’t normally do such a thing, especially if I wasn’t even sure if I’d be able to get out. But, truthfully, this was no normal insane asylum, and I had come too far not to do this.

I’d been tracing Vincent Van Gogh’s steps for two weeks and after visiting so many of the places where he'd lived and painted, I felt like we were almost buddies. This particular journey was focused on the part of his life after he moved to France and started painting in a more colorful and modern style. Back in 1886, Post-Impressionism was finding its footing in France and many young bold artists congregated in the Montmartre area of Paris trying to out-paint each other. Van Gogh had run out of money at his flat in Holland and moved into his brother Theo's apartment in Paris.

The windmill in Montmartre painted by Van Gogh, and the apartment where he lived with his brother.

Image: Bill Wiatrak

My journey started in that neighborhood. A lot has changed in the 130 years that’s passed between the time that Vincent and Theo lived together in that apartment on 54 Lepic St., but there’s a marker on the building, and the area is still probably the seediest one in Paris. Artists still congregate in Montmartre, but now it’s to do a fast portrait or silhouette of a tourist. Van Gogh painted in the streets and often used windmills (moulins) as his subject during the two years he lived in Paris. Imagine the area with no cars and you’ll still find traces of his inspiration, as seen in Le Moulin de la Galette or Boulevard de Clichy. The windmill and the street are still there.

My next stop was Arles, a magical town less than an hour from the coastal city of Marseilles, and with a history dating back to Roman times. Arles has a beautiful historical center with a Roman arena, ancient buildings and cobblestone streets. Van Gogh’s time here was arguably his most inspired era. After two years of the hustle and bustle of Paris, he wanted to start an artist commune and invited his fellow painters.

Site of the Yellow House.

Paul Gauguin was the only one who showed up and lived with Vincent in the Yellow House for two months until their famous fight (in which Van Gogh cut off part of his own ear). Nothing of the house remains today, but the buildings and the train bridges match up perfectly with Van Gogh’s painting Yellow House at Arles

The Van Gogh Foundation created a self-guided tour of the places Vincent painted and lived—you can feel the magic. The more iconic spots have displays showing the painting in the place where it was most likely painted. 

Just a few minutes from where the Yellow House stood is the Rhône River. Step out along the riverfront at night and see the reflections of the buildings’ lights in the water. If the stars cooperate, it’s easy to see the real-life version of Starry Night on the Rhône. You can also drive to the Langlois Bridge and see a replica of the wooden crossing that Van Gogh painted eight times.

The most iconic spot on the tour has to be Cafe Terrace at Night. Amazingly enough, the cafe still serves coffee at the same spot Van Gogh painted over a century ago. Have a java at one of the outdoor tables or stand in the square and note the differences between the artist’s painting and the real place. 

Saint-Paul de Mausole

Image: Bill Wiatrak

Van Gogh had a great run in Arles, but he eventually started having severe psychological problems and checked himself into an asylum, Saint-Paul de Mausole, near Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. He stayed there under the condition that he’d have the autonomy to paint outside. He was even given an extra room to keep his paintings. It was here that he painted his most iconic work, Starry Night.

This was to be the highlight of my tour. It was only a 30 minute drive from Arles. But when I arrived, the entrance was closed with a sign explaining that the asylum had been shuttered for the holidays until February. I'd flown all the way from Texas to make this pilgrimage and was more than a little disappointed.

I rang the doorbell. No one answered. I called the phone number. Nothing. I followed the stone gate around to an office. A woman answered the door. I explained that I just needed a quick look, a photo and I’d be on my way. She told me no. I told my sad story once again and promised I would just only need one minute. I hoped that persistence would pay off.

Image: Bill Wiatrak

I’d like to say that someone cared, but in the end all I got was a few French shrugs (the sort of shrugs that only the French can do). I thought about resorting to a loud do you know who I am!? tactic but then considered that the asylum staff members have seen crazy and there wouldn’t be much I could do to impress them. I walked back to the car checking the site one last time for any possible points of entry. There was nothing except a giant stone wall surrounding the asylum, a locked door and a vehicle gate that measured at least 8 feet tall. The place was built to keep people from escaping and it appeared to work both ways. I realized my efforts were futile. As I started the car, I heard the gate open.

I’ve watched too many spy movies and played too many video games to squander the opportunity that had just presented itself to me. I dashed through the closing gate and suddenly I was in Vincent's asylum. I didn’t have a plan or even an explanation if I got caught, so I just went in expecting the worst. Security might grab me at any moment. I wasn’t doing anything wrong, but French people don’t like Americans acting like they own everything. I get that. I snapped a few pictures while expecting to hear sirens and guard dogs at any moment. I posed with Van Gogh’s statue. It seemed like I was in there for an hour, but it was only three or four minutes. Would I be able to get out? The exit door opened easily. 

Would I recommend that you try this? No. My advice is to NOT do this. Check the website for opening times and go then. Learn from my mistakes.

I'd flown from Paris to Marseilles to see Arles and Saint-Rémy, but I wasn’t quite finished with my Van Gogh tour. I flew back to Paris.

Image: Bill Wiatrak

After leaving Saint-Rémy, Vincent moved to a small village about an hour’s drive northwest of Paris called Auvers-sur-Oise. I rented a car at CDG and drove to see where Van Gogh spent his last three months. As you travel through to this small town, you can see fields of sunflowers, haystacks and fields that look exactly like Van Gogh paintings.

He stayed at the Ravoux Inn (which remains there today) under the care of a physician and churned out almost 70 paintings. On July 29, 1890, he shot himself in the chest in the field where he’d been painting and somehow managed to get back to the inn. 

Theo rushed to his side and was with him when he passed away two days later. Van Gogh was buried at a small cemetery at the top of the hill in Auvers. Theo died the same year and is buried next to him in a plot covered with ivy. As I visited his grave I was touched that a fan had put a bright sunflower on his grave. After 130 years, Vincent is more famous than ever.

I finished my tour by driving to Amsterdam, five hours north of Auvers, to visit The Van Gogh Museum, the largest public display of his paintings that also provides a timeline of his 10 years as an artist.

The Potato Eaters.

Image: Bill Wiatrak

Most of what we know about Van Gogh's life comes from the correspondence between him and his brother. These letters are part of the museum’s collection and visitors can hear and see snippets of some of the content, all translated. The museum exhibits his more famous paintings, but also contains many of his lesser-known works and early masterpieces such as The Potato Eaters.

Vincent Van Gogh led a fascinating life in spite of the fact that he only lived to be 37. There’s no better way to learn about an artist than to experience and see the world through his eyes. Add these stops to your next trip to France, and you might be surprised how interesting it can be to immerse yourself in the places where Van Gogh’s art began and ended.

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