On February 21, 1888, Vincent van Gogh arrived in Arles from Paris, to be greeted by snow and a bitter Mistral wind. Within a year, he painted such celebrated canvases as The Sunflowers, Van Gogh’s Chair, The Red Vines and The Sower. He always lived near the station, staying first at the Hotel Carrel, 30 rue de la Cavalarie, then the Café de la Gare, and finally the so-called “Yellow House”, at 2 place Lamartine.
Van Gogh found few kindred souls in Arles, but managed to persuade Paul Gauguin to join him in October. Their relationship quickly soured when the November weather forced them to spend more time indoors. Precisely what transpired on the night of December 23, 1888 may never be known. According to Gauguin, Van Gogh, feeling threatened by his friend’s possible departure, attacked first Gauguin and then himself. He cut off the lower part of his left ear, wrapped it in newspaper, and handed it to a prostitute. Gauguin duly left Arles, and although Vincent’s wound soon healed, his mental health swiftly deteriorated. In response to a petition from thirty of his neighbours, he was packed off to the Hôtel-Dieu hospital, from where he moved on to St-Rémy.
None of Van Gogh’s paintings remains in Arles, and the Yellow House was destroyed by World War II bombing. Vestiges of the city that he knew survive, however. Behind the Réattu museum, lanterns line the river wall where he’d wander, wearing candles on his hat, watching the night-time light: The Starry Night shows the Rhône at Arles, while the distinctive Pont Langlois drawbridge survives on the southern edge of town. The Hôtel-Dieu hospital itself, on rue du Président-Wilson, is now the Espace Van Gogh, housing a mediathèque and university departments, with a bookshop and a salon de thé in the arcades.
The Fondation Vincent van Gogh is due to open a large exhibition and research facility on rue du Dr-Fanton. As well as displaying contemporary works inspired by Van Gogh, it hopes to arrange temporary loans of paintings by the artist himself. For details, visit w fondation-vincentvangogh-arles.org.