Nobody has been able to determine why Vincent van Gogh got off the train at Arles. Almost equidistant from Montpellier and Aix-en-Provence it was known for its Roman ruins and the magnificent amphitheatre in which bull fights attracted the local Arlesiennes. The painting by Vincent is more about the people in the audience and Mme. Ginoux (“L’ Arlesienne”) is shown in the foreground.
In October 1888, six months after Vincent had signed the lease for “The Yellow House”, Gauguin arrived by train from Pont-Aven in Brittany to join his friend in what was to become a period of the most febrile artistic activity for them both. He produced some 200 paintings in just over a year. Sunflowers, La Berceuse, The Sower, the two chairs- his and Gauguin’s, the famous portraits of the Familles Roulin and Ginoux, the countryside around Le Crau and Arles and the buildings and cafes of Arles.
The cathedral of St Trophime both fascinated and repelled Vincent, because the medieval world of horrors was as terrible as the Roman arena, which had witnessed so many gory scenes. He was much more interested in the here and now- “the Zouaves (soldiers in Algerian costume), the brothels, the adorable little Arlesiennes going to their First Communion, the priest in his surplice who looks like a dangerous rhinoceros…”
He may have been smitten by this vision who was carrying the colours for Vincent in the sad omission of the van Gogh Foundation Museum from the tourist beat. The Museum had been closed for many months and no Arlesienne I asked for directions had ever heard of it.
There is a tawdry shopping precinct on the site of the old hospital, which Vincent himself painted but very little else to draw attention to the poor, crazed, brave, passionate genius in the town of Arles. I wish I had read the moving tribute to the year spent in Arles by Vincent, The Yellow House, by Martin Gayford because I would have seen it with different eyes.
I met a red-haired compatriot of Vincent who runs an ice-cream parlour- organic, raw milk, unusual flavours- and chatted with her while I ate not one but THREE ice creams (cardamom, ginger and one other which I now forget). Mariejke was very particular and washed her hands after serving every customer.
It was a warm day for once (Provence was cooler than Oxford) and I enjoyed my wanderings through the labyrinth of narrow streets.
Undaunted by the Mistral, a fine Rumanian accordian player let his fingers fly and glissade through Brahms’ Hungarian dances and the manic, Red Shoes -compelling Czardas of Monti.
And as I walked to where I’d parked the car, I saw this sad reminder of our times. The grand façade, the brave promise…