Van Gogh's bedroom at Saint Paul de MausoleNear the end of his life Vincent van Gogh painted some of his greatest works at Saint Paul de Mausole a beautiful 11th century monastery converted into a psychiatric clinic.

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The artist voluntarily committed himself for treatment. He arrived in Saint Paul - which is just outside Saint Rémy de Provence - from Arles on 8 May 1889 and remained there just over a year until 16 May 1890.

During this time, at the peak of his powers, he completed over 150 drawings and 143 paintings of his surroundings over all four seasons of the year. They include some of his best known works such as Irises, Wheat Field with Cypresses, The Siesta and The Starry Night.

Van Gogh seemed for a while to be recovering during his stay. But he suffered a relapse in early 1890 and moved north to Auvers sur Oise to be near his beloved brother, Theo, and a new physician, Dr Paul Gachet. Only two months later, on 29 July 1890, van Gogh took his own life, aged 37.

The main building at Saint Paul de Mausole is centred around its serene and lovely Romanesque cloisters (pictured) lined with rambling roses and lavishly planted with begonias and other flowers.

Cloisters, Saint Paul de Mausole, Saint Remy de ProvenceThese cloisters were first coverted into a psychiatric clinic in in early 19th century. Part of the Saint Paul complex still accepts patients (female only), and visitors are asked to respect the peace and privacy of their quarters.

On the upper floor of the area open to the public are recreations of a bathroom, pictured below, with tin baths and a wheelchair, and of van Gogh's bedroom, pictured top left.

It's sparsely furnished with an austere single bed, easel, wooden chair, desk, battered leather bag and a barred window looking out on to a kitchen garden and wheat fields which he painted 15 times.

The explanatory signage, in French and (rather odd) English focusses on the psychiatric treatment rather than on van Gogh's art. But standing in the recreation of his bedroom is a moving experience. Arrive early in the summer to avoid the crowds.

Bathroom, Saint Paul de Mausole, Saint Remy de ProvenceNote that the stairs to this upper floor are behind a door, rather poorly signposted and easy to miss: you have to pass through the inevitable gift shop to access them.

Saint Paul remains faithful to this day to van Gogh's dream of founding an artists' collective in the south of France. A therapeutic art studio, Valetudo (named after the Roman goddess of health), was created there in 1995.

The patients' results are displayed around the cloisters and some of them are for sale in the gift shop, alongside the usual van Gogh mugs and postcards.

There are no original van Gogh works at Saint Paul de Mausole (go to the Musée Angladon in nearby Avignon to see the only painting by van Gogh on permanent display in Provence).

But you will find plenty of reproductions and, as a nice extra to the visit, you can take a self-guided walk from Saint Paul into Saint Rémy de Provence. The route is peppered with 21 illustrated panels, such as the one photographed here, with short explanations in English and French comparing van Gogh's visions directly with the real landscapes that inspired him.

The van Gogh walk, Saint Remy de ProvenceThe panels often don't directly mirror the view around (although they sometimes do).

But it's a gentle 800 metre / half mile stroll slightly downhill from Saint Paul into the heart of the old town through open countryside and residential suburbs lined with oleander, olive groves and - in spring - the irises and poppies that figure so prominently in van Gogh's work from this period.

Depending on how fast you walk and how long you spend at each panel, it takes between 30 minutes and an hour.

You can also take a guided tour "in the steps of Vincent van Gogh" organised by the Saint Rémy Tourist Office and there is a Van Gogh Centre at the Musée Estrine.

In nearby Arles, you can also go on a self-guided van Gogh walk around key sites captured by the artist and see at least one of his works (more in summer) at the new Fondation Vincent van Gogh.

Click here to read about a self-guided walk through Aix en Provence in the footsteps of Paul Cézanne.

 

 

By the way, the "Mausole" in Saint Paul de Mausole refers to the immense Roman mausoleum a couple of hundred metres up the road from the clinic. Van Gogh must have often walked past it and the triumphal arch next to it. Click here to read more about Glanum and the Roman ruins at Saint Rémy.

Shot at Saint Paul de Mausole, a recent film spotlights another troubled artist: Camille Claudel (1864-1943), a talented sculptress who was also the mistress of Auguste Rodin.

In 1913 Camille's family, which did not approve either of her artistic ambitions or of her relationship with Rodin, committed her to a mental institution, apparently against her will. She spent the last 30 years of her life there.

Camille Claudel 1915 explores three days at the beginning of this harrowing period. The artist is played by the Oscar-winning French actress Juliette Binoche, pictured. Controversially, actual patients at Saint Paul de Mausole play Claudel's fellow-inmates, while the head doctor and some of the nurses at the hospital also appear in the film.

Juliette Binoche in Camille Claudel 1915In real life, Claudel was incarcerated at Montdevergues Asylum, in Montfavet, near Avignon. Saint Paul de Mausole was preferred by the film's director, Bruno Dumont, as being far better preserved from modernisation.

Isabelle Adjani was nominated for an Oscar for her performance as the sculptress at the height of her affair with Rodin in an earlier film, Camille Claudel (1988), co-starring Gérard Depardieu.

Where: Saint Paul de Mausole, Chemin Saint Paul, 13210 Saint Rémy de Provence. Tel: +33 4 90 92 77 00. Website for Saint Paul de Mausole Note that Saint Paul may be closed for some weeks in the middle of winter.

Find further reading on Amazon:

Click here to buy The Letters of Vincent van Gogh, here to buy The Yellow House by the art critic Martin Gayford, an account of van Gogh's tumultuous nine weeks in Arles with Paul Gauguin, and here to buy Van Gogh's Ear by Bernadette Murphy, a new look at the facts behind the notorious ear-severing incident.

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