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.
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.
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.