The gnarled olive trees, irises, lavender, and bright sunshine…Entering the Monastery of St. Paul de Mausole in St. Remy de Provence in southern France you have a feeling that you’ve seen this place before. That’s because you have.
This is the “maison de sante,” not far from Arles, where Vincent Van Gogh went to rest and recover his mental health in 1889, not long after the famous incident when he cut off his ear. He stayed here roughly one year and during that time he painted anything and everything in his surroundings–143 oil paintings and more than 100 drawings including two of his most famous masterpieces, Irises and The Starry Night. The fabulous thing about visiting St. Paul de Mausole is that photos of the paintings and and information about them appear where they were painted. So for example, a photo of “Les Oliviers,” which is now in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, is posted right in front of those olive trees. You feel a little chill when you see exactly what he saw and how he interpreted it.
The imposed regimen of asylum life gave Van Gogh a bit of stability: “I feel happier here with my work than I could be outside. By staying here a good long time, I shall have learned regular habits and in the long run the result will be more order in my life.”
You’ll enjoy your trip more if you read up about Vincent. Irving Stone’s fiction classic Lust for Life provides a general knowledge of his story. But scholars continually interpret both his art and the health problems that may have been at the source of his mental illness. Most recently, Van Gogh: The Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith offers a very readable portrait of Van Gogh and puts forth the idea that rather than committing suicide, Van Gogh was murdered. Traveling with kids? They’ll want to read van Gogh and the Sunflowers by Laurence Anhold.