Arles: Then and now – Van Gogh’s Yellow House

In May 1888 Vincent Van Gogh rented four rooms at 2 Place Lamartine, in a town called Arles in the south of France. This would come to be known as the Yellow House. The rooms were on the right wing of the nearest building in the painting. The two ground floor rooms were used for a studio and a kitchen. The upstairs corner room was the guest room for Gauguin, while the one next to it (with one shutter closed) was Van Gogh’s bedroom – the one later painted with the chair and pipe. At a later point, he rented two more rooms upstairs at the back of the house. On 16 September 1888 Vincent wrote to his sister Wilhelmina describing the house, and his contentment at finding a place where he felt he could think and paint:

“My house here is painted the yellow colour of fresh butter outside with raw green shutters; it stands in the full sunlight on a square which has a green garden with plane trees, oleanders and acacias. And it is completely whitewashed inside, and the floor is made of red bricks. And over it the intensely blue sky. There I can live and breathe, think and paint.”
Letter Vincent Van Gogh to his sister Wilhelmina dated 16 Sept 1888 letter W07

Yellow House - Arles

Yellow House – Arles (detail)

The painting was done in September 1888 and was originally called The Street – we were there in October a couple of years ago and found the light similar to that discovered by Van Gogh. I could see why the place attracted him – for the light and the colours – and especially the sky which is emphasised by the brightly painted buildings of the town.

Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo on 28 September, about this painting among others:

“…Also a sketch of a 30 square canvas representing the house and its setting under a sulphur sun under a pure cobalt sky. The theme is a hard one! But that is exactly why I want to conquer it. Because it is fantastic, these yellow houses in the sun and also the incomparable freshness of the blue. All the ground is yellow too. I will soon send you a better drawing of it than this sketch out of my head.

The house on the left is pink with green shutters. It’s the one that is shaded by a tree. This is the restaurant where I go to dine every day. My friend the factor is at the end of the street on the left, between the two bridges of the railroad. The night café that I painted is not in the picture, it is on the left of the restaurant.”

– Letter to Theo (543) dated 28 September 1888

When he wrote the letter, Vincent was 35 years old, and was eagerly awaiting the arrival of Paul Gauguin. Gauguin would live at the house for nine weeks from the end of October 1888. The night cafe is actually across the Place Lamartine, through the Town Gate and up the street on the square where the Roman Forum once stood.

The square is still there – complete with its plane trees and oleanders, but the house was badly damaged when it was accidentally bombed by the Allies on 25 June 1944 as they were targeting the railway bridge across the Rhône during the liberation of Arles – and the house was demolished shortly afterwards. Nevertheless, the four-storey building behind survives to this day, along with the railway bridges in the background. The bridges are easily recognised from Van Gogh’s depiction of them. The nearer bridge (with the steam train depicted in Van Gogh’s painting) is for the local line, while the further bridge (with square supports) is for the Paris and Lyon lines. The street running through beneath the bridges is Rue Montmajour.

Van Gogh’s observation and drafting skills are evident in his painting – the two railway bridges are easily identifiable today, as is the building that stood behind the Yellow House. The inclusion of a train on the bridge also evokes the message of his desire for Gauguin to visit, and to suggest that the railway network kept him connected with his brother Theo, as well as to the rest of the Paris art scene. Trains at that point in history were symbols of modernity and progress, and showed how the world was shrinking and becoming more intertwined. Arles was no longer a distant outpost, but part of a networked France.

Yellow House - Arles

The site of the Yellow House today in Arles

The house was just two minutes’ walk from the site where he painted the ‘Starry Night over the Rhone’. Today, if you turn around from where this photo was taken you will find a modern ‘Monoprix’ supermarket and a roundabout (formerly a park) – so if you are looking for the location, just look for the Monoprix first and it is just across the intersection.

By looking at a place through the eyes of a painter almost 130 years ago, we can see the changes and continuities in the landscape, and gain a sense of the presence of history wherever we travel. And in the process, perhaps we can begin to develop a language of seeing and a way of thinking about the cultures we encounter and how this, in turn, says something to us about our own culture.

The Yellow House painting currently hangs in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

Arles: Van Gogh’s CafeTerrace at Night – then and now

Ever wanted to put yourself in the picture? It was evening and the sky was precisely the deep Prussian Blue that Van Gogh portrayed in his painting of “the Café Terrace at Night”. The lights under the awning reflected warmly in the wine glasses as we toasted our meal and our time in Province. It was Autumn in Arles, and the smell of lavender mingled with the delicious food smells. It hadn’t changed much since Vincent (yes we’re on first name terms now) painted the café at around the same time of year in 1888.

 

Van Gogh's CafeTerrace at Night

In those days, the café terrace was lit by gas lamps beneath the awning, as the evening brought out the vibrant stars. Van Gogh did the painting as a companion piece to his Night Café in which he depicted the interior of this same cafe.

Van Gogh wrote about this painting to his sister Willemien Van Gogh on 14 September 1888:

“I was interrupted precisely by the work that a new painting of the outside of a café in the evening has been giving me these past few days. On the terrace, there are little figures of people drinking. A huge yellow lantern lights the terrace, the façade, the pavement, and even projects light over the cobblestones of the street, which takes on a violet-pink tinge. The gables of the houses on a street that leads away under the blue sky studded with stars are dark blue or violet, with a green tree. Now there’s a painting of night without black. With nothing but beautiful blue, violet and green, and in these surroundings the lighted square is coloured pale sulphur, lemon green.12 I enormously enjoy painting on the spot at night. In the past they used to draw, and paint the picture from the drawing in the daytime. But I find that it suits me to paint the thing straightaway. It’s quite true that I may take a blue for a green in the dark, a blue lilac for a pink lilac, since you can’t make out the nature of the tone clearly. But it’s the only way of getting away from the conventional black night with a poor, pallid and whitish light, while in fact a mere candle by itself gives us the richest yellows and oranges.”

– [Source:  www.vangoghletters.org].

There were other cafés nearby on the plaza that once formed part of the Roman Forum here, and over the ten days we stayed there, we sampled most of them. Here, the steak was tasty and the Beaujolais formed the perfect accompaniment, along with the traditional baguette. A cool wind blew, but we didn’t mind. The occasional scooter clattered past on the cobble stones  – damp after a recent shower – leaving an oily smoke in its wake. It is a real place. Yet somehow the damp ground added vibrancy to the colours, rendering the scene more painterly. I can see why he chose this town, this part of the south of France. It is the light.

 

Van Gogh's CafeTerrace at Night

[source: photographed by me from a print erected at the spot from which he painted the cafe.]

The cafe itself – as you can see – is still there on the Place du Forum in Arles, just down the road from the Roman Amphitheatre which is still in use today for concerts and bull fights. Sharon and I had a wonderful dinner there – very French – with a nice carafe of wine. It was a magic evening 🙂

As for the actual painting? You can find Café Terrace at Night on display at the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, Netherlands.

Roman baths (Thermae) in Arles

Therme de Constantine - Roman baths, Arles

Therme de Constantine – Roman baths, Arles

The extensive remains of the  Roman Baths (thermae) in Arles in the south of France – built during the 4th Century AD under Emperor Constantine – give an insight into how the Romanised Gauls lived – taking on many aspects of Roman culture. Regular bathing was was practiced across all classes. While the wealthy Romans had small bath houses built into their mansions, the public ones saw people socialising, exercising and maintaining a habit of cleanliness.

People went to bathe and socialise before their evening meal – much as we might socialise at a gym or bar after work. The entrance was free or cheap – and depending on the time, men and women had separate bathing times or they bathed together depending on the fashion of the day. Of course some baths had a reputation for illicit behaviour or bacteria infested waters – Seneca, who lived in an apartment over a bath house railed against the noise, smell and behaviour of the clientelle. But they were clearly not all like that or they would not have become such a central part of Roman life.

The water for the Thermae at Arles came from the Alpilles mountain chain – a low mountain range in Provence about 20km south of Avignon, and was brought to the town via an aqueduct. The water was then fed into a tank which supplied the town through lead pipes.

Roman lead pipes - Arles

Roman lead pipes – Arles

The building is divided into several sections, with a central courtyard for people to relax or take exercise – perhaps like a modern gym. There were change rooms with closet space for your clothes (apodyterium). Then you could alternate between a hot room (caldarium), a warm room (tepidarium) and a cold bath (frigidarium). Romans believed you would gain health and cleanliness from progressing from one to the other.

The hot room was heated by an under-floor heating system (hypocaust) – the remains of which can be seen today.

Hypocaust - Arles

Hypocaust – Arles

This was a bit like a sauna, and the idea was to sweat out the impurities and be scraped down with a curved metal strap called a strigil. You would then cool off in the frigidarium to close the pores, and the tepidarium would be a relaxing point, perhaps for a massage and the application of scented oils.

Roman Baths Arles

Roman Baths Arles

Once clean it was time to head home to eat.

Today, we also find it important to look after the body and the mind. Cleanliness is  said, after all, to be next to godliness. It is also associated with good health and living a good and civilised life. It certainly feels that way to share a moment with the ancient Romans in Arles, before heading around the corner for a pasta and wine (avec baguette naturellement). They were not unlike ourselves all those years ago…

The Roman baths at Arles are on the UNESCO Word Heritage list. They are open daily. A €9 ticket allows entry to this site plus four other Arles sites.
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