Notes for Provençal Light

n researching this sequence, I consulted, by turns, a dozen different sources. Some, like Evart van Uitert's Van Gogh: Drawings (trans. Elizabeth Willems-Treeman; Woodstock, NY: The Overlook Press, 1978) and two different Phaidon Press collections (no listed editor; Vienna, 1936, and Brian Petrie; Oxford, 1974), were valuable primarily for providing reproductions of Van Gogh's work. I drew heavily from Pierre Cabanne's biography, Van Gogh (trans. Daphne Woodward; New York: Thames and Hudson, 1986), and relied on Frank Elgar's Van Gogh (trans. James Cleugh; New York: Praeger, 1958) to corroborate details. Ronald Pickvance's catalogues for the two Metropolitan Museum of Art shows, Van Gogh at Arles (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art/Abrams, 1984) and Van Gogh at Saint-Rémy and Auvers (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art/Abrams, 1986), supplied invaluable information about Van Gogh's daily activities during these periods, as well as meteorological data and commentary on the paintings. Mark Roskill's chronology of Van Gogh's life in his edition of The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh (New York: Atheneum, 1963) helped in preparing the biographical paragraphs, as did Mark Tralbaut's Van Gogh: A Pictorial Biography (New York: Viking, 1959). Finally, for information regarding the artistic climate in Europe leading to Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, I'm grateful to Charles Rosen and Henri Zerner's Romanticism and Realism: The Mythology of Nineteenth Century Art (New York: Norton, 1984).

After the Orchard: "Souvenir de Mauve"

Van Gogh arrived in Arles on February 20 to find the city under a foot or more of snow--an unexpected sight. Alternating snow and rain continued for more than a month, frustrating his desire to paint in the bright light. During this time he met a Danish painter, Christian Vilhelm Mourier-Petersen, with whom he spent much time walking, painting, and talking. March 30--Good Friday and Van Gogh's thirty-fifth birthday--marked only the second or third warm, sunny day he had experienced in Arles. After spending the day painting in the blossoming orchards, he returned to find a letter from his sister containing the obituary of his teacher, Anton Mauve (1838-88). At the bottom of one of the paintings he had worked on that afternoon, he inscribed "Souvenir de Mauve, Vincent."
The phrase, "Committed," refers to the period, when, after he abandoned his career in the ministry, Van Gogh's parents, probably most seriously his father, considered putting him en curatelle (under guardianship) at an asylum near Antwerp. Mauve apparently assured them that he had artistic talent. "Sien" is Clasina Maria Hoornik, a prostitute who Van Gogh took in with her children during his stay in The Hague; "Sorrow" was a lithograph made from two drawings of the same title in 1882. "The other" refers to Kee Vos-Stricher, Van Gogh's widowed cousin who rejected his proposal during his 1881 stay in Etten. "The canker": In June 1882 Van Gogh was admitted to the hospital in The Hague with gonorrhea. "Another" is Agostina Segatori, proprietress of Le Tambourin, a café where Van Gogh and other painters exhibited their work. They had an affair during his stay in Paris from 1886-88 which resulted in her pregnancy and apparent abortion. She appears in the penultimate monologue, "Le Tambourin."

The Café Terrace

Throughout the summer Van Gogh painted and sketched around Arles, often in the company of Lt. Milliet, a Zouave stationed at Arles, who took some lessons from Van Gogh. During this time, Van Gogh and Theo were in frequent contact with Paul Gauguin, living in Port-Aven in Normandy. Van Gogh hoped to bring Gauguin to Arles, both to alleviate the strain on Theo's finances (he was supporting Gauguin, too) and to begin to realize his dream of a Mediterranean atelier. In mid-August Milliet traveled to Paris and delivered several paintings to Theo; he returned a month later after an extended leave in northern France and a second visit to Theo. Van Gogh memorialized Milliet in the portrait that bears his name.
"Montmajour" is a hill that rises abruptly out of the plain about three miles northeast of Arles. A ruined abbey "crowns the rocks," as Van Gogh wrote to Theo. The hill provides a panoramic view of Arles and the intervening plain, "the Crau." "Facture " involves working the paint, a style that does not seek to finish the surface of an oil painting but allows the texture of the paint and the brushstroke to display expressiveness. "Roulin" is Joseph Roulin, a postman and intimate of Van Gogh's; he appears in "The Hospital at Arles." Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) painted "Wounded Cuirassier Leaving the Battle." "Rachel" was a prostitute in one of the local brothels, a particular favorite of Van Gogh.

La Maison de Tolérance (Brothel No. 1)

Gauguin arrived in Arles on October 23, 1888, and moved into Van Gogh's Yellow House. For two months, they painted, argued, and caroused together, severely straining Van Gogh's stamina. Their quarrels often turned violent and public, prompting Gauguin's desire to leave. Deranged and probably drunk, Van Gogh, after arguing with Gauguin when he had decided to spend the night at a hotel preparatory to leaving Arles, retreated to his most frequented brothel, head bandaged with a blood-stained rag, and asked for Rachel, his favorite girl.
"Bernard, Guillaumin, Boch" were all artists Van Gogh imagined would participate in his Midi studio. Paul Gauguin painted both "Self-Portrait with Halo and Snake" and "Van Gogh Painting Sunflowers." Eugène Delacroix (1799-1863) painted "Tasso in the Madhouse."

The Hospital at Arles

After cutting off his earlobe, Van Gogh remained in the hospital in Arles for nearly a month. During that time, he was visited by his friend Joseph Roulin, the postman, who also looked after Van Gogh's home and took Van Gogh to visit the Yellow House at least once. Immediately following the episode, Gauguin left Arles permanently. Van Gogh painted and drew several portraits of Roulin.
"Trompe l'oeil " means, literally, "trick of the eye"; a technique of painting intended to convey the illusion of reality. "Cloisonné " was originally a method for producing designs in enamel by laying out a pattern in metal strips and filling the spaces with enamel; a term Gauguin used to describe his technique of laying out the canvas with lines and filling in the color. "The letters of this English poet" refers to John Keats, whose work Van Gogh had encountered as early as his first stay in Paris in 1875. Dr. Felix Rey, a surgeon, attended Van Gogh during his stay in the Hospital at Arles; Van Gogh painted his portrait and presented it to the doctor as a token of thanks. "Madame Ginoux" was the proprietress of the Café de la Gare, where he drank with Roulin and Milliet.

In the Studio at Saint-Paul-de-Mausole

On Wednesday, March 8, Van Gogh left Arles, feeling incapable of caring for himself in the community, and voluntarily committed himself to the asylum in the former priory of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole in Saint-Rémy-de-Provençe, a village fifteen miles northeast of Arles. Shortly after his arrival, he was given a second room to use as a studio and was permitted to sketch and paint in the gardens. His primary care was entrusted to the head attendant, Charles-Elzeard Trabuc, whose portrait Van Gogh painted in September.
Dr. Théophile-Zacharie-August Peyron, director of the asylum, initially diagnosed Van Gogh as "suffering from acute mania with hallucinations of sight and hearing," later believing that Van Gogh had suffered an epileptic seizure. "Sur la motif, " literally, "on the motif," involves the exploration of a visual theme through sketches, often, as with "The Starry Night," conflating elements from different sources to produce a final product, as opposed to painting, as Van Gogh preferred, following the Impressionists, en plein air , in the open air, directly from the scene.

Le Tambourin

En route from St.-Rémy to Auvers, Van Gogh spent three days in Paris with Theo, Johanna, and his nephew and god-child Vincent, his first meeting with his new "sister." On Monday morning, he took a walk. Nowhere did Van Gogh record what he did during those several solitary hours in Paris. I have taken liberty with historical fact to imagine him returning to his old haunts, including Le Tambourin, a café where he and other painters had exhibited their work, and finding Agostina Segatori, proprietress of the café with whom he had had an affair. His portrait of her, seated at a round table painted to resemble a tambourine (hence the café's name).
Julien Tanguy, called Père, a former communard, ran a small shop where he sold art supplies. His shop was also a meeting house for the Impressionists, and Van Gogh saw work by many other painters there and brought his own for display. Tanguy generously allowed "his" painters to buy paint and canvas on credit, and Van Gogh ordered his supplies from his shop while he was in Provençe. John Russell was an Australian painter Van Gogh had met in Cormon's studio and with whom he corresponded during his stay in Arles and St.-Rémy. Gustave Doré (1833-83) painted "Prisoners' Round." After Van Gogh's third seizure in Arles, the townspeople circulated a petition requesting that he be kept in confinement because he constituted a danger to the community. Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-98) was a French painter whose work Van Gogh admired.

Van Gogh at Auvers Recalls His Childhood in Brabant

While in Auvers, Van Gogh was treated by Dr. Paul-Ferdinand Gachet, who practiced homeopathic medicine and was himself an amateur painter. Several portraits of Dr. Gachet survive, including two paintings and an etching retouched in pencil ("L'Homme a la P"). Van Gogh's condition did not improve the two months he spent in Auvers, which confirmed his first impression that Gachet seemed "to be suffering at least as much as I." During the seventy days he lived in the small village on the River Oise just north of Paris, he produced as many canvasses, as well as numerous drawings. However, he felt his artistic powers were diminishing and despaired of ever regaining his health. The afternoon of July 27, Van Gogh walked out of town on Rue Boucher with an easel, his painting supplies, and a revolver. Here, he addresses the only ear he believes will listen.
"Spirits of wine" is rectified alcohol, used to finish oil paintings. "Cor" was Van Gogh's youngest brother, Cornelius. Kalmhout Heath is near Zundert, a place where Van Gogh walked while a child. Charles François Daubigny (1817-78) was Barbizon painter who lived in Auvers.

About the Author

Allen Hoey was born in Kingston, New York. His first collection, A Fire in the Cold House of Being , was chosen by Galway Kinnell for the 1985 Camden Poetry Award; What Persists , his second full-length volume of poems, was issued in 1992. Other publications include Transfigured Autumn , a selection of translations of Georg Trakl's poems, and Work the Tongue Can Understand: Sonnets . He currently teaches at Bucks County Community College and makes his home outside Philadelphia.