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Studio behind bars

Where did Van Gogh work? Behind bars in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence


In May 1889 Van Gogh was admitted to an asylum for the mentally ill in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, not far from Arles. He would remain there for a year. In addition to the standard cell assigned to every patient, he was allowed to use another one as a studio. There was plenty of room: about thirty cells were unoccupied.


Unlike his fellow patients, Van Gogh was allowed to continue working as usual, both inside and outside the institution. He felt it was essential to his recovery, and the physician handling his case agreed. In any case, it took his mind off his troubles.

Aerial view of the asylum Saint-Paul-de-Mausole

Aerial view of the asylum Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, near Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. A: the men's wing, with an arrow marking Van Gogh's cell; B. the north wing, where Van Gogh had his studio. Both wings had views of the large, overgrown garden with pine trees, another place where Van Gogh liked to work.



All the rooms in the asylum were barred, including Van Gogh’s studio. It is hard to imagine a sharper contrast with the studio in Arles that he had just had to leave, his beloved Yellow House. On the other hand, he had often had improvised working spaces in the past, and at least in Saint-Rémy he had a view of a lovely, overgrown garden. It was the only one of his studios of which he made an interior study, in which the bars outside the window are clearly visible.

Vincent van Gogh, Window in the studio, 1889, black chalk, brush and oil paint and watercolour on pink paper, 62 x 47.6 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Vincent van Gogh, Window in the studio, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)



Although we know that Van Gogh’s studio was in the north wing, we do not know the exact cell. And although we assume that it was on the first floor (the upper level), a remark in a letter suggests otherwise. In the autumn of 1889, when Vincent wanted to send his brother Theo some paintings, he wrote that his work was ‘drying very badly because of the dampness of the studio. Here the houses have scarcely any cellar or foundations, and one feels the damp more than in the north’ . This probably was true mainly on the ground floor.



The asylum housed a wide variety of patients. Some had only minor problems – Van Gogh himself mostly fell into this category – while others were severely ill and could cause serious disturbances. Van Gogh described such people with compassion: ‘They all come to see when I’m working in the garden, and I can assure you are more discreet and more polite to leave me in peace than, for example, the good citizens of Arles’ . The people of Arles who had driven him out of the Yellow House and complained to the police that he was a dangerous madman who should not be allowed to roam free.



During his stay in Saint-Rémy, Van Gogh had a number of severe attacks, all of which took place outside the asylum. After each attack, he returned to working exclusively in his studio for a while before he dared or was allowed to go outside again. Most of the attacks were short and intense, but the last one, which began in late February 1890, lasted almost two months before he finally felt better. While recovering his strength, he was allowed to work in his studio, and he produced a few small paintings based on drawings and memories: landscapes with farmers and huts, which he described as ‘reminiscences of the north’.  In the meantime, Theo had found a place for him in the northern French village of Auvers-sur-Oise on the outskirts of Paris, where Vincent moved in May 1890.

Vincent van Gogh, Reminiscence of Brabant, 1890, oil on canvas on panel, 48.8 x 54.4 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Vincent van Gogh, Recollection of Brabant, 1890, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)


5 Responses to “Studio behind bars”

  1. Mikki Harper says:

    HIs work has always intrigued me. Having experienced LSD in the 60’s I always thought he must have eaten some bad rye bread. He captured my hullinations perfectly. What a tortured soul he was…I fell in love with his work when I was about 12 long before the LSD period. So emotional and beautiful were his rendereings.

  2. Javier y Sara says:

    Visitando Van Gogh M en Amsterdam… aquí os vemos!!=)

  3. Ruben-Abraham Siedner, Jerusalem Israel says:

    This is a very moving section of the entire exhibition. I was particularly touched by the “St. Lazarus” opus. As much as I am concerned, a piece of art which conveys emotions I had exprieneced myself (and I am not a religious man at all).
    Thank you, Vincent. Thank you, Van Gogh Museum.

  4. Taryn Drazek says:

    Being from South Africa and only being able to see the works of Van Gogh in books and catalogues, one can only see the beauty and emotion when seeing the paintings in person. I have been moved emotionally and spiritually beyond anything I expected! Using painting as a tool for his own therapy is something that all us artists should do, as opposed to following trends and merely creating for a market.

  5. TT says:

    Van gogh’s painting gives you a different type of emotion. My most favorite part was the The Raising of Lazarus ! Vincent has inspiered me.