Van Gogh Self PortraitVincent van Gogh lived in Arles for just 15 months. But it was the most thrilling period of the painter's life, and a stroll round his haunts reveals the city through his eyes. logoClick here to book a hotel in Arles

Van Gogh arrived in Arles by train from Paris on 18 February 1888. It was a revelation. He loved how the light was so brilliant, even in the middle of winter. What a contrast to the greyness of northern Europe.

The flat surrounding Camargue landscape must have reminded him of his native Holland. But he was also immediately fascinated by Arles' exotic Spanish flavour.

"The Zouaves, the brothels, the adorable little Arlésiennes going to their First Communion, the priest in his surplice, who looks like a dangerous rhinoceros, the people drinking absinthe, all seem to me creatures from another world," he wrote to his brother, Theo, on 18 March 1888.

And, although van Gogh's time in Arles was brief, it was immensely prolific. His vision and technique matured and he completed over 300 paintings and drawings here.

starry night over the rhoneThey include some of his most emotional, luminous and best known pieces, such as La chambre de Van Gogh à Arles (Van Gogh's Bedroom in Arles) and La Chaise de van Gogh (Van Gogh's Chair).

Pictured top left: Autoportrait au chapeau de paille (Self-Portrait with Straw Hat) and, right, La Nuit étoilée sur le Rhône (Starry Night over the Rhône).

Dreaming of creating a community of artists, van Gogh met a handful of fellow painters and, by October, had persuaded Paul Gauguin to join him. The two men rented a house together.

It was a disaster. They quickly clashed and a series of stormy arguments climaxed just before Christmas 1888 in the notorious episode when van Gogh severed his left ear. 

Click here to buy The Yellow House by the art critic Martin Gayford, an account of those tumultuous nine weeks, and here to buy Van Gogh's Ear by Bernadette Murphy, a new look at the facts behind that notorious incident.

On 8 May 1889 van Gogh left Arles, voluntarily committing himself for psychiatric treatment at Saint Paul de Mausole, just outside Saint Rémy de Provence.

But he was unable to find peace there and took his own life the following year, on 29 July 1890, aged just 37. Click here to read about walking in van Gogh's footsteps outside Saint Rémy.

And here in Arles too, a leaflet prepared by the Tourist Office maps out another suggested self-guided walking tour through the city.

It's indicated by small and rather hard to see markers in van Gogh's trademark yellow, pictured, set into the pavement. The route is roughly circular, with a few side excursions. So you can start and end it at any point, and go round in either direction.

van gogh walk plaqueAt intervals, enamelled plaques on concrete "easels" mark the spots where Vincent must have stood to work. They enable you to compare his paintings to the sites as they are today - though, annoyingly, the explanations are on French only.

Following this trail takes about 90 minutes - perhaps half a day if you want to do it at a leisurely pace. And there is much more to explore.

Unlike his contemporary Paul Cézanne, who was more drawn to landscapes, portraits and still lives, van Gogh painted very many street scenes all over Arles, vividly capturing the urban bustle.

So, if you have a bicycle or car, you could spend several days hunting for all the locations in the city and the surrounding countryside that inspired him. Here we visit some of the best-known and more centrally located ones.

espace van goghA good start is the Hospital or Hôtel Dieu (now known as the Éspace van Gogh) where the artist was sent after he attacked his ear.

We have to admit that some places on this van Gogh tour have changed enormously over the decades and now bear a rather faint resemblance to the original art.

But these beautifully restored hospital gardens, pictured, are one of the most perfect matches. Our photo was taken in winter, near the time when van Gogh did his painting.

The cloisters house a library and galleries though be warned: one side of the courtyard is blighted by souvenir shops. The site is also a magnet for tour groups, so arrive early.

Around the corner on the place du Forum is the brasserie in Terrasse du café la nuit (Café Terrace at Night).

The real-life café has gone through various names and incarnations: when we visited, in 2016, it was called Le Café la nuit.

Painted bright yellow to evoke van Gogh's palette, it's a popular spot for a drink and one of Arles' most photographed sights.

Head along to the Rhône river to see the Pont de Trinquetaille, pictured, one of Arles' only two surviving bridges.

Van Gogh painted it in uncharacteristically muted, grey colours but the striking, low-angle composition is very typical of him.

bridge triquetaille van goghJust along the river, the main railway bridge linking Arles to the Camargue was bombed by the Allies during the Second World War.

But two proud stone lions remain on each bank to guard the remains. Near them, van Gogh painted La Nuit Étoilée sur le Rhône (Starry Night Over the Rhône), one of his delirious starry nightscapes.

Nearby, the Yellow House which he shared with Gauguin was in a working-class (and red light) district near the train station.

Strategically important as a communications hub, this part of Arles, including the Yellow House, was also extensively bombed in 1944 and entirely rebuilt after the war. But the next-door building, pictured, now a brasserie, still stands, even if to tell the truth it's not really very yellow.

yellow house van goghSo too does in the far background the railway bridge that figured in van Gogh's painting, perhaps alluding to the train that first bought him to Arles.

This lively, workaday part of town feels very different from the old part of Aix. But van Gogh was just a few minutes' walk here from the Roman amphitheatre, where you'll find another of his plaques.

Les Arènes d'Arles (The Arena in Arles) captures a bullfight there. Unlike Picasso, for whom the thrilling corrida was the main attraction, van Gogh focuses on the milling crowd of spectators. The bull is just a smudge squeezed up in the top right-hand corner of the painting.

Other stops on the trail are the entrance to the Summer Gardens, which contain a bronze bust of van Gogh by the American sculptor William Earl Singer. Crossing the railway tracks, van Gogh also painted a 15th century windmill in the rue Mireille.

A little further out of town are Les Alyscamps, an ancient Roman necropolis whose poplar trees van Gogh painted in autumn.

Further still (a good 40 minute walk, in fact) is the Pont Langlois, a canal drawbridge built by a Dutch engineer, which must have especially appealed to him: he painted or drew it nine times.

The original bridge was replaced, then blown up by the Germans during the Second World War; the current structure, renamed the Pont van Gogh, is a replica.

railway carriages by van goghAs is the case with Aix en Provence and Cézanne, the town of Arles does not own a single work by the artist who immortalised it.

The nearest major piece by van Gogh on permanent display is Wagons de Chemin de Fer (Railway Carriages), pictured. It was painted in Arles, but belongs to the Musée Angladon in Avignon.

But traces of him can be seen at two museums in Arles. The first is the new Fondation Vincent van Gogh, which opened in 2014. Admittedly it's a temporary exhibition space and has no permanent collection, let alone any van Goghs of its own.

But, aided by major international loans, its big summer show is generally dedicated to van Gogh.

At other times, you can see work by contemporary artists with affinities to van Gogh and one painting by the master (which changes each spring) is displayed there throughout the year.

The second is the Musée Réattu, which has in its collection a letter from van Gogh to Gauguin written just before the latter's arrival in Arles. It also has 57 drawings donated by Pablo Picasso in honour of van Gogh, as well as Picasso's Portrait of Lee Miller as an Arlésienne (1937), a cubist homage to van Gogh's own L'Arlésienne series.

Photo credits: all images © SJ for Marvellous Provence except Autoportrait au chapeau de paille © Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, La Nuit étoilée sur le Rhône © Musée d'Orsay, Paris, and Wagons de Chemin de Fer © Musée Angladon, Avignon.


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