Vincent Van Gogh spent most of the last year of his life in an asylum, Le Monastere Saint Paul de Mausole, in the Provence town of Saint Remy. When he committed himself to the mental hospital on May 8, 1889, doctors noted that Van Gogh was suffering from acute mania and both visual and auditory hallucinations.
Yet between his arrival and his departure on May 16, 1890, the extraordinary Impressionist created 100 drawings and 150 paintings, among them his masterpiece Starry Night.
If I am worth anything later, I am worth something now, for wheat is wheat even if people think it is grass in the beginning,” wrote the artist, some of whose works today are valued at more than $100 milllion apiece.
Today, the gardens of Cloitre Saint-Paul, where the artist’s sparse room is preserved and his history recounted in several languages, are dotted with framed posters of Van Gogh works enshrined in museums around the world. And beside these reproductions, some of the scenes the artist painted live on in the natural surroundings of the hospital’s grounds.
This is a most serene place, especially with the early blossoms of spring and on an early Saturday morning when we arrived to find the gardens and the field behind the artist’s room empty and sun-drenched. It’s a place to visit and to linger, a place Van Gogh found some solace from his personal agony. (The entrance fee of roughly $6.50 is well worth it; parking is free.)
Just two months after leaving the mental hospital, Van Gogh shot himself in the chest. Two days later, he died.
Today, the place where he found peace and painted some of his most famous works lives on.
“The ambiance was incredible,” Kathy’s sister, Chris, said the evening of our Saturday visit. “It’s so calm and so quiet.”
It’s even a bit eerie. In the gardens, for example, can be found a reproduction of a painting of cherry tree blossoms that today hangs in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum Vincent Van Gogh. The artist painted it in February 1890. When we visited, on March 1, 2014, a tree beside the reproduction had blossomed.
It’s possible after leaving the sanitarium, which to this day still takes patients, to walk along a path past some 20 scenes that Vincent Van Gogh painted. The entire visit is an extraordinary experience.
Those who mounted the exhibit remind visitors that it’s about more than the past. Mental illness here, as everywhere, still cripples too many promising lives, a message that the exhibit’s creators make clear.
Notes one poster next door to Van Gogh’s sparse chamber: “At the beginning of the 21st century, about 900,000 French people consult yearly more than 13,000 psychiatrists, among whom 40 percent work in the public sector. Many posts remain vacant.”
It’s a message that resonates in mental hospitals and mental health centers far beyond the gates of this seemingly gentle asylum.