Getting lost looking for Van Gogh in Arles
We took a few minutes to unpack and then with the help of a map, decided to find some of the Van Gogh locations we’d come to see.
Somewhere I’d read a little note about the challenges of getting around in Arles. It said that on the first day, it would take you two hours to find anything, and on the second day, you’d find it in ten minutes. How true that proved to be.
Even with a map we’d find ourselves on unexpected corners, thinking the location we were looking for should be right in front of us, but it didn’t seem to be there. That’s because Arles is built as a maze of streets inside a big oval. If you’re on the perimeter and you take the wrong street in towards the centre, you end up missing your destination. And one wrong turn inside the maze and you were lost forever.
Also, in the centre of town, you’re walking along very narrow streets with two and three-storey houses on both sides. You have no view of other streets until you come to a corner. Then you look at the street sign and realize that it’s not the corner you thought it would be.
So, we picked another option for getting around. We just walked around and when we found a landmark, we went from there. Soon we were along the banks of the Rhone, walking on an elevated brick pathway that followed the curve of the river. Then we came upon a rectangular block embedded in the walkway with some kind of brass picture and a triangular marker. After looking at it for a while, we realized it was a silhouette and a reflection of Van Gogh carrying his easel. The arrow was pointing to a location that was related to him. The idea was to keep walking in the direction of the arrow.
Within another minute or so, we came upon a sign marking the location where he’d painted Starry Night over the Rhone which we had seen a few days earlier in the Musée d’Orsay.
We stood and looked and of course in the daylight it didn’t feel anything like his painting. But still. Here we were close to the spot where Van Gogh had put down his easel on a September night in 1888 to capture the night effects of the stars and the lights from the buildings on the shores. You could see the curve of the river just like you see it in the painting. The same buildings that he saw were still there.
Before doing this painting, Van Gogh wrote to his sister Wilhelmina, “At present I absolutely want to paint a starry sky. It often seems to me that night is still more richly coloured than the day; having hues of the most intense violets, blues and greens. If only you pay attention to it you will see that certain stars are lemon-yellow, others pink or a green, blue and forget-me-not brilliance. And without my expatiating on this theme it is obvious that putting little white dots on the blue-black is not enough to paint a starry sky.”
Because the sky and reflections are so prominent, it’s easy to miss the pair of lovers in the lower right of the painting. At this point, Van Gogh was quite lonely in Arles. It was now September, and he’d been there since February, living a very solitary life.
Gauguin, who had said in July that he would join him, still hadn’t arrived.
Earlier in the year he had written Theo, “I would rather fool myself than feel alone. And I think I should feel depressed if I did not fool myself about everything.”
After painting it, he wrote to his brother Theo, “Included herewith little croquis (sketch) of a square no. 30 canvas — the starry sky at last, actually painted at night, under a gas-lamp. The sky is green-blue, the water is royal blue, the fields are mauve. The town is blue and violet. The gaslight is yellow, and its reflections are red gold and go right down to green bronze. Against the green-blue field of the sky the Great Bear (the Big Dipper) has a green and pink sparkle whose discreet paleness contrasts with the harsh gold of the gaslight. Two small coloured figures of lovers in the foreground.”
He regularly frequented the brothels (Arles seemed to be well-known for them), but what he really wanted was a constant companion. Speculation is that he represented himself as one half of the couple in this painting.