It’s good for anyone researching Van Gogh’s work to immerse themselves in his motifs. The 'Collection Catalogue team' went on study tour to Arles and Saint-Rémy. They were introduced to the places Van Gogh visited, and to the mistral.
Van Gogh paid a great deal of attention throughout his career to capturing his immediate surroundings, knowledge of which therefore enables you to study Van Gogh’s work and methods more effectively. By visiting the places where he spent time, you can identify the locations where he worked and understand his choice of subjects: what didn’t he paint, for example. In some instances, moreover, it can be the only way to clarify how a particular image was constructed.
Exploring the surroundings
One general thing you learn, for instance, when walking through Van Gogh’s landscapes is that he sometimes varied his subjects efficiently, by selecting motifs viewed from more or less the same spot in different directions. Exploring the area in person also gives you an idea of distances, the size of buildings, typical weather conditions, local characteristics and so forth, making Van Gogh’s work more familiar and even more eloquent.
Changes over time
The surroundings have obviously changed a lot since Van Gogh’s time, but there’s still a great deal that you recognize in Arles and Saint-Rémy – the two Provençal towns where Van Gogh spent over two years in total. Virtually everyone in our research team had visited the area previously, but this was the first time we had explored it together. The resulting discussions were enlightening for everyone and brought the team closer to the world as experienced by Vincent van Gogh, the much-loved subject of our research. This was further heightened by a natural phenomenon that occurred during our visit and to which Van Gogh regularly referred in his letters: the mistral.
Natural phenomenon: the mistral
Every season has its characteristic features, but the mistral is a constant presence throughout the Provençal year. The harsh, cold descending wind from the north can hold the region in its grip for days at a time and is traditionally described as one of the three main local nuisances: ‘Parlement, mistral et Durance sont les trois fléaux de la Provence’ (‘Parliament, mistral and [the river] Durance are the three scourges of Provence’). We got an immediate taste of what this means during a turbulent landing at Marseille airport, after our flight had been shifted to a night slot.
New insights thanks to the mistral
Van Gogh frequently complained about the mistral, which hindered his work. He did come up with a partial solution, though. Writing about Wheatfield with Arles in the Background, he told his friend Emile Bernard: ‘I painted it out in the mistral. My easel was fixed in the ground with iron pegs, a method that I recommend to you […]; that way you can work in the wind.’ (letter 628). When we experienced the violent wind in person, however, we had our doubts about Van Gogh’s claim that he had painted the scene while the mistral was blowing. The strength of the wind repeatedly blew us off balance, making it more than a little hazardous to stroll along the Rhône quayside. Pegging an easel down and then painting a large canvas (standard size 30) on it would be downright impossible under those conditions.
Van Gogh on the mistral
The wind is clearly blowing in Van Gogh’s painting: the wheat is bent over towards the south, and the smoke from the factory chimneys is also blown firmly in the same direction. According to contemporary weather reports in the local newspaper l’Homme de bronze, there were five days of ‘stiff wind’ (vent assez fort) in June, the month in which Van Gogh painted the scene, but there is no mention of the mistral (vent fort or très fort). Van Gogh appears to have exaggerated a little in order to impress Bernard. Later in July, when the mistral lasted for days, he wrote very differently to Theo about his ‘struggle against this infuriating nuisance of the constant mistral’; he could only draw outside with difficulty, while as for painting, there was ‘no means of doing it with the mistral, absolutely impossible’ (letter 639). Aside from the physical nuisance, you could also sense that a ‘nasty, nagging wind’ (letter 653) that doesn’t let up throughout the day or night could eventually begin to affect your mental state.
We spent about three days in the windy South, exploring Arles on the first day. The team visited various spots were Van Gogh once set up his easel, but also where he bought his materials, for instance, or visited the brothel. The second day took us to the nearby hill of Montmajour, with its famous ruined abbey, the spectacular mountain village Les Baux de Provence, and Saint-Rémy. There we visited the institution and explored the immediate surroundings at the foot of the Alpilles, with its cypresses, olive groves, abandoned quarries and old mountain paths. We spent the morning of the last day viewing locations in Arles that we hadn’t seen already, such as Les Alyscamps, which had been closed earlier because of the mistral and the danger of falling branches. The wind had eased off in the meantime, making the return flight at the end of the day a lot more pleasant.