The Mistral drove Vincent Van Gogh mad. That demon gale turns narrow cobblestone streets into icy wind tunnels and chills your body to the marrow.
So it’s quite appropriate that the day our Back-Roads Touring group visits St Paul de Mausole – the mental hospital into which the impressionist artist admitted himself - the wind is wracking Provence, flinging dust into our eyes and mocking the autumn sunshine.
Van Gogh and fellow artist Paul Gauguin had been living in the nearby city of Arles where their brawling, whoring and drinking made them unbearable to each other and the townspeople. The spiral of mutual self-destruction aggravated Van Gogh’s mental illness from which he never recovered. He wrote: “Sometimes moods of indescribable anguish, sometimes moments when the veil of time and fatality of circumstances seemed to be torn apart for an instant.” In May 1889, after mutilating his left ear, he came here. Despite his illness he didn’t stop painting.
Treatment at St Paul de Mausole for Van Gogh was austere – limited to two-hourly baths twice a week, a frugal diet and managing to stop his intake of alcohol, coffee and self-harming consumption of turpentine and paint. On the first floor a bedroom has been reconstructed to show how simply he lived, with the adjacent bathroom a chilling reminder of how rudimentary treatment for the mentally ill was.
The bathroom overlooks the spectacular courtyard and the hall of many arches where the artwork of mental patients is exhibited today. The hospital remains open and art is still a major form of therapy. Van Gogh loved this view, and painted it within the first week of arriving. “I have two views of the gardens and the asylum in which this place looks very attractive. I’ve tried to reconstruct it as it might have been, simplifying and accentuating the proud, unchanging nature of the pine trees and the clumps of cedar against the blue,” he wrote.
During his year there, Van Gogh painted 150 canvases of the hospital, its gardens and the wheat fields, cypresses and olive groves of the surrounding countryside. It was here he painted his ultra-famous Irises. Of all the places I explored on my Back-Roads Touring adventure through Provence and the Riviera, this beautiful, sombre retreat affected me the most. The serenity and physical beauty of the location is a dramatic contrast to the internal agony and turmoil of its inmates. I hope tormented souls found respite here.
As I walk back down the dusty drive to the tour bus, I see the olive groves whipped into a frenzy by the Mistral and for the first time understand Van Gogh’s vivid use of movement, the rough beauty and bold colour of his art.