On the footsteps of Van Gogh – Visiting Arles

Arles is a historic city in the Provence region of Southern France. It was a well known Roman city for centuries and has an impressive display of Roman amphitheater and Gladiator arena. In late nineteenth century Arles became a hub of great impressionists.

Getting to Arles

Arles is one of the 4 major towns in Provence above the major seaport of Marseilles. If you visualize the regional Provencal highway as a sideways diamond, Avignon and Arles would be the top and bottom respectively with Aix-en-Provence on the east and Nimes on the west. Each of these towns are under an hour drive from each other when traffic is light.

Arles is also a major stop for river cruises and well connected by train along the Provence-Cote-de-Azur line between Avignon and Marseilles.

Van Gogh and Impressionism

Many artists have lived and worked in this area because of the southern light, including Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin, Jacques Réattu, and Peter Brown.

The famous yellow house of Arles where impressionists Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin were roommates

Dutch post-impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh was invited to Arles by Gaugin and lived there between 1888 and 1889 producing over 300 paintings before his death. During his time in Arles Van Gogh lived in a yellow house.

Most of the surroundings are transformed today but the house has been converted into the Van Gogh museum with a modern look while preserving the roof top with it’s 19th century look and feel.

Entrance to the Van Gogh museum in Arles, France

Van Gogh arrived here in February 1888. He was fascinated by the Provençal landscapes, producing over 300 paintings and drawings during his time in Arles.

A copy of Van Gogh’s starry starry night is placed on location shown in the famous 19th century painting

Many of his most famous paintings were completed there, including The Night Cafe, the Yellow Room, Starry Night Over the Rhone, and L’Arlésienne.

‘A Pair of Shoes’ one of several Vincent Van Gogh’s work on boots depicting passage of time

However, van Gogh’s mental health deteriorated and he became alarmingly eccentric, culminating in the well-known ear-severing incident in December 1888 which resulted in two stays in the Old Hospital of Arles. The concerned Arlesians circulated a petition the following February demanding that van Gogh be confined.

A sculpture exhibit at the Van Gogh Museum in Arles

In May 1889, he left Arles for the Saint-Paul asylum at nearby Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. A large number of his work were produced in his final year and soon after, the artist committed suicide.

Les Arènes d’Arles and Roman Monuments

The history of Arles goes way back before the popularity of Impressionism. The city was at it’s prime in the Late Roman period. In the late 4th century it became the main city of Gaul, with nearly 100,000 inhabitants (current population stands at 52,000). Emperor Constantine considered it one of his favourite cities, and had the bath houses built. This historical past is evident from the Roman amphitheatre that is the showpiece of town, surrounded by lively restaurants and tourist shops.

It is a marvellous monument to explore with a great view over the city from the medieval tower that was built over its entrance.

The arena is used regularly for horse and bullracing events in Summer, and features bullfighting during certain festivals.

Nowadays, Arles is mainly known as a tourist destination and regional centre, and hosts an annual international photography festival. The city center was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981. We had a nice dinner at one of many restaurants in the city center before heading back to our Airbnb in nearby Cavaigon.

Check out below a short YouTube clip of our trip to Arles for more visual details!


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