Around this time 124 years ago, Vincent Van Gogh was experiencing one of the worst Christmases of all time. He had fallen out with Paul Gauguin who had left him alone in Arles in southern France, the lobe of his left ear had been cut off (whether by him, or by someone else still seems to be a matter of contention) and his mental condition had begun to deteriorate significantly. For Van Gogh, Christmas of 1888 and the New Year were spent in the Old Hospital of Arles, also known as Hôtel-Dieu-Saint-Espirit.
Van Gogh was discharged in early 1889 but his increasingly erratic behaviour around the town of Arles resulted in more than 30 locals signing a petition, asking that he be committed for his own safety and theirs. By April 1889 he was once again under the care of Dr Félix Rey. Van Gogh didn’t waste his time while he was recuperating (or at least attempting to do so). There were no TVs, trashy novels and magazines, or iPods to fill his time, and he didn’t exactly have a stream of visitors queuing up to see him – after all, his nickname around town was “fou roux”, meaning “the redheaded madman”. So Van Gogh did what he did best, and that was painting. The works that he created that were inspired by his stay in the hospital have since become known as the Hospital In Arles Series and we’re going to take a closer look at the creation of three of these paintings and circumstances surrounding them.
The first painting is the Portrait Of Doctor Félix Rey, and it was actually created by Van Gogh during his first stay at the hospital in January of 1889. Van Gogh was fond of Dr Rey and he even briefly lived in rooms owned by the doctor when there was water damage to his Yellow House in Arles. He created the painting as a keepsake for Dr Rey to remember him by, and the work is now housed at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow.
The next work that was inspired by his hospital trip is Garden Of The Hospital In Arles, created in June of 1889 based on previous sketches. The vantage point for the view of the scene depicted was Van Gogh’s room in the hospital, and he provided detailed descriptions along with the canvas so that the plants and flowers that he painted could be accurately identified. Van Gogh altered the proportions of the central fishpond to provide better proportioning for the canvas, and the colours that he used – shades of gold and blue – seem to indicate melancholy and sadness.
The final work in the series is Ward In The Hospital In Arles, which was completed in October 1889, having remained unfinished for some time. The painting further highlights his depressive mood, and according to Debra Mancoff, author or the book Van Gogh’s Flowers, “the exaggerated length of the corridor and the nervous contours that delineate the figures of the patients express the emotional weight of his isolation and confinement.”
The Hospital In Arles Series provide a unique glimpse into a crucial period of change and upheaval in the life and career of Van Gogh. Following these paintings, he entered the chaotic and frenetic final period in his career in which his output increased as his mental state declined.