Editor’s Note: This past May I had the pleasure of teaching a Travel, Food and Wine Writing Class in Provence for The Writer’s Workshop. During the class, the students experienced the magic of Provence: wonderful restaurants like Maison Drouot in St. Remy de Provence , fabulous wineries like Domaine de la Mourchon and fascinating historic sites like the St. Paul de Mausole mental hospital where Vincent Van Gogh painted The Starry Night. I’ll be sharing the stories they wrote over the next few weeks, exploring the beauty, history, food and wine culture of this amazing place. I’ll be teaching a similar course in Rioja, Spain this spring (May 21-27): http://www.thewritersworkshop.net/classes/travel-writing-classes/.
By Mary Anne Erickson
I first saw a reproduction of the painting “Starry Night” by Vincent Van Gogh as a young art student in Los Angeles. I was fascinated by the feeling of magic it evoked: the bright colors in the midnight sky, the radiant stars and swirling wind, the looming mass of cypress trees in the foreground and the comfort of the sleeping village below. What is it about this landscape that I find so compelling?”
Years later as a professional artist in New York City, I visited the actual painting many times at The Museum of Modern Art and was moved to tears by the combination of passion, pain, tenderness and violence in his brush strokes.
Recently, my husband Richard and I took a travel writing class in Provence and part of the itinerary was a visit to Saint-Paul Asylum, St. Rémy where Van Gogh had lived the next to last year of his life. I was thrilled but somewhat apprehensive at the thought of standing in his room and looking out that window. Would I be able to “feel his energy” like I had when I stood in front of “Starry Night”? I wondered almost magically, “Would being in his space infuse some new inspiration into my work as an artist?”
Excitement was building as we pulled into the town of St. Remy. When I stepped off the bus at Saint-Paul Asylum, I had a strong, irrational sensation of having “been here before”, a “deja vu” moment. There were the familiar olive groves on either side of our walk up to the gate. Then our guide greeted us and directed us down the long walled corridor leading to the hospital entrance, landscaped with tall flowering acanthus.
Time slowed down as I took in the reproductions of famous Van Gogh paintings on either side of the corridor walls and read the plaques with information on Vincent and excerpts from letters to his brother Theo. As I glided along in this euphoric dream, I snapped pictures with my camera, not wanting to miss a single second of the experience.
Each footstep on the stone path Vincent must have walked hundreds of times was taking me closer to the essence of my pilgrimage: being in his room, looking out his window. I could see the entrance just ahead as other tour groups preceded us.
Then in one startling moment my “drifting through a dream” ended as our guide pointed out the building to our left and told us this was the “real” hospital where Vincent had lived and of course we couldn’t go there because it’s a functioning mental institution.
I felt like I had been punched in the gut. Cheated. All kinds of irrational feelings and thoughts raced through my mind. “Does the person living in his room have any idea?” Do they feel his presence even though it was over one hundred years ago? Can they see beyond the bars on his window to the peasant sowing seeds in the wheat fields or the colorful twinkling stars he brought to life in The Starry Night? I felt defeated. I would never know.
I followed our group into the adjacent monastery building that has now become the official museum. It was a lovely building, but I felt detached as we were shuffled in with other tour groups. We were directed up a set of stone stairs to a room that looked out on a large field of scarlet red poppies and then into a smaller room that had a wrought iron bed, low to the floor, an easel with a canvas on it, a wicker chair, a small desk, and a rectangular barred window. This was the replica of Vincent's room. It was so crowded with people I couldn't even get a picture of the window. “Ugh! I hate these group tours,” I muttered to myself.
I waited a few moments until most of the people had moved on and was able to look out through the bars on the window to the same view he would have seen. Our guide had explained that the poppy fields below and the fields beyond were once a large expanse of wheat fields. I recognized it! There, off to the right, were the steel blue mountains he had painted dozens of times. I lingered, looking out the window, and paused to take it all in. I blocked out all the noise and chatter going on around me and in that moment, I began to feel “his” landscape emerging. Beyond the bars in the window, I could imagine those golden stalks of wheat swaying in the warm Provençal wind and see with my own eyes the way the sunlight shone on those enduring distant hills. At last, I could feel my heart beginning to sing. “This is Van Gogh’s landscape! This is what I’ve come here to see.”
My group moved on and I trailed behind and back down the stairs. Our guide led us outside, back in the direction of the bus, then through the grove of olive trees and up a rise which opened out onto a large field of tawny tall dry grass facing the Alpilles Mountains. She had a binder full of pictures which she opened to two of his paintings which showed the exact same view we were currently a part of. It was stunning! I could feel my heart pounding as I realized I was standing on the same piece of earth where Vincent had once stood over one hundred years ago, looking at the very same landscape.
I was overwhelmed and felt much like I did when I stood for the first time in front of The Starry Night in the museum. It was a feeling of “coming home” to a landscape I've known my whole life, but never seen with my own eyes. How incredible that all this has endured just as he saw it and the passage of time has not diminished the power of the view, or the allure it has for me. “My feet are walking through the tall grass he brought to life in yellow ocher, burnt sienna, and viridian green,” I said to myself. “I’m a part of the sun-washed landscape he painted endless times in the last year of his life!”
I wanted to tell the folks in my group to get back on the bus and leave me in this field to take in the majesty of what Van Gogh had seen in this eternal landscape. Let me pitch my easel, pull out a canvas or two and paint for a few days. Or if not that, just let me linger a bit longer as I look through his eyes, feasting on the beauty of this tawny field, azure hills and cerulean blue sky so alive with vibrant color and movement.
As I walked back to the parking lot I realized how precious those few moments had been when I stepped into Vincent's world through this timeless landscape. Finally I’d experienced the magic for myself.
Now when I pick up my brushes to paint, I find my inner Van Gogh has been awakened and he whispers to me “Paint as though your life depends on it!”
I’m mystified at times by the randomness of events that mark turning points in our lives. Who would have guessed that my choosing to take a writing class in Provence would have the power to unlock this secret door within myself? Van Gogh’s been waiting for me all this time.