Van Gogh’s Provence

Van Gogh’s Provence

Farmhouse in Provence, by Vincent Van Gogh. 1888.

There are, of course, hundreds of beautiful regions in the world. Too many to see in one lifetime. So we must pick and choose carefully. Pick and choose carefully where to visit and where to live — if we have that choice and chance. Provence is one among hundreds, but unique. Unique being a word we can apply to those hundreds of places as well. And so it goes. Thousands, if we talk about towns, villages, cities, and so on. So far, in this life, my favorite places are in Ireland and France. But I hope to see much more of the world. Much more.

When I studied Art History in college, I would take a class and be overwhelmed by the greatness of this or that artist, this or that period of Art, and think: This is it. The best. I won’t find something I like more than this! Until I did. And I continuously did. And then it all seemed to come together for me. Greatness everywhere, if you look carefully, study carefully, pay attention, give your attention to that beauty and that truth. You don’t need to create hierarchies then. You don’t need to rate things.

Places are like that too. Traveling is like that. It’s the best until you see something else. Nothing can compare, until you see something else. And then step back. You stop rating things.

I loved the Pyrenees as well. And Normandy. And Brittany. So many different parts of France seemed the best to me. Until the next stop. And the next. And then I stepped back.

The above painting is one of Van Gogh’s finest. Though it’s rarely talked about or placed among those paintings we think about when we think about Van Gogh. It is perhaps too composed, too quiet, not wild enough. But, to me, it captures the magic of the land and Van Gogh’s brushstrokes, the magic of his encounter with Arles, and previously with Japanese prints. He called Arles the Japan of the South and wanted the sun of Provence to alter what he painted, to take out details he saw as unimportant, to mix and blend and fuse all things under that sun.

View of Arles with Irises, by Vincent Van Gogh. 1888.

This painting is even more controlled for Van Gogh. Though he said he wanted the sun to wash away certain things, he retained great detail here. Van Gogh described the picture for his brother Theo:

“. . . a vast field of bright yellow buttercups, a ditch full of irises with green leaves and purple flowers, in the background a town, a few grayish willows, a strip of blue sky. A small town surrounded by a field of yellow and purple flowers–you know, it’s just like a Japanese dream.”


We humans often feel the need to compare things, to situate them inside our own biographies. Van Gogh painted that. His brushstrokes were like layers of visions he still held in his mind, seen elsewhere, seen yesterday, merging with the present. The past and the present. The sun of Provence merging Van Gogh’s biography with that land. Time and space. Places and years gone by. Nostalgia like colors placed on top of colors, beside other colors. Creating now.

Perhaps the liberation of the canvas helped do that. The liberation of brushstrokes. Their rise above the canvas. Their breakaway revolution from the hidden. As if past painters were ashamed of the process of painting. As if past painters wanted to hide that biography, that story, that deam of Japan.


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