By Erin Byrne
What else except pain and suffering can we expect if we are not well, you and I?
—Vincent van Gogh, in a letter to Theo van Gogh, February 1889
What if all you can do is all you can do? Curl up. Breathe. Exist. Breathe, exist. In. Out.
This was not what was meant to happen here.
During the two years Vincent van Gogh lived in Arles, 1888-1889, the mistral—the keening, tree-leaning, untamed wind of the south of France—pummeled him and gave his mind what he called a queer turn. He fixed his easel in the ground with iron pegs, tied everything down with ropes, and let the mistral gust the colors through his body, out of his hand to the brush, and onto the wobbling canvas. Sometimes, a very spiteful and whining wind forced him to lay the canvas flat on the ground, crouch over it, and work on his knees.
The wind rattled the shutters in my tiny hotel room in Hôtel d’Arlatan, each tat-tat-tat a nail into my head. I curled tighter into the fetal position.
The train brought Vincent to this Provençal town. He was full of high hopes of creating an artist’s colony. He had fresh plans. A house! Creative inspiration! Friends! He found a house near the train station and called it the Yellow House. Vincent painted a picture of it with supplies his brother Theo had sent from Paris. He would decorate the house with bright paintings and invite specially chosen artist friends to join him. They would all create together in this Artist’s Colony of the South.
The air, Vincent wrote to Theo, did him good. One of its effects on me is quite amusing, a single small glass of cognac here goes to my head. His blood was circulating.
The train had spat me out in the underground station with my two suitcases and a bulky carry-on bag. Each seemed to bulge with additional books and boots, every second growing heavier and heavier. I shivered in the cold at the bottom of three flights of stairs, looked up toward the sunlight, hoisted my bags in aching arms, and clomped up, feeling as if a magnet were pulling me from behind.
At the top of the stairs, Bienvenue à Arles. As the seconds ticked by, what I knew about Vincent’s life here simultaneously unfolded.
Each day, Vincent emerged from the Yellow House loaded up like a porcupine with sticks, an easel, canvases. He puttered around from site to site, happily painting the different aspects of Arles. I even work right in the middle of the day, in full sun, with no shade at all, out in the wheat fields, and lo and behold, I am as happy as a cicada, he wrote.
He made friends with the postman, Joseph Roulin and his family, and other artists and townspeople. He painted Roulin in his blue uniform with gold trim, thinking the postman looked a bit like Socrates.
Vincent did a self-portrait of himself jauntily setting out, his portable studio on his back, a whimsical likeness in which even his shadow seemed perky.
He painted the Langlois drawbridge; the women gathered on the banks of the river washing clothes appeared to move in rhythm, cheerily chatting away.
He painted people on leisurely promenades and clean still life works of bright pitchers and lemons.
I saw no taxis at the summit of the stairs. It was Sunday. I’d have to drag my burden through the town to my hotel. My map was buried, and I scanned for signs, hauled the carry-on upon my back and rolled/dragged/stopped every few feet. The joints in my fingers hurt, my energy twisted strangely.
There were signs everywhere for the Van Gogh Walk: Over there was the park he’d painted so prettily, up ahead was the Arena, a small Roman coliseum, and around that corner was Place du Forum where Vincent had painted the café at night in festive yellow and blue. All the sites were labeled with poster-sized prints of the paintings and little vignettes of Vincent’s activities in each spot.
Clusters of van Gogh lovers huddled together reading the placards, ran their hands along the backs of benches, railings, and chairs where Vincent had once existed, and scurried here and there, maps in hand.
I reached the top of a hill near the Arena and the colors of the coliseum, the sky, the trees, and people’s clothes ran together in dizzying swaths.
Much later, the youth of the town threw cabbages at Vincent. The people of Arles turned against him and called him “Fou-roux” (redheaded madman). In the end, Vincent was smacked from all sides.
I checked into my hotel and, still oddly achy, went to a hammam where I was slabbed face down on a table. Hands pummeled my shoulders, squeezed my neck. This was supposed to feel good, but my muscles shrieked, my joints gnashed together. The grip felt as if the huge hands of Vincent’s washerwomen were kneading me to a pulp. I returned to the hotel and crawled into bed.
If you are coming down with something, it turns out that a massage can call the illness forth in a rush.
Inside the Yellow House, Vincent covered the whitewashed walls with paintings of sunflowers, six in all. He carefully decorated the bedroom for his friend Paul Gauguin, who had agreed to come, even putting up a painting he’d finished of the bedroom itself, an asymmetrical picture done from a skewed perspective. He wrote to Gauguin that he hoped the delightful garden near the house would stimulate his imagination.
My bony carcass is so full of energy…. However clumsy this attempt may be, it may show you perhaps that I have been thinking of you with great emotion as I have prepared your studio.
Vincent prepared and prepared. He put flowers in vases, purchased bread and cheese, made the bed carefully.
I’d filled the map of Arles with my own notes ahead of time: Find the Yellow House. Have a glass of wine and live inside the painting, Café Terrace on the Place du Forum at Night. Stand on the banks overlooking the river, near where he painted Starry Night Over the Rhone. Visit Espace van Gogh.
I had prepared and prepared. Hopes were high.
On Day #1, I’d planned to place my feet, clad in black ballet slippers, directly on the path Vincent had taken through the park, to sit on a bench and contemplate the life of the artist. I would visit Espace van Gogh, the hospital where he’d stayed later, when things went bad, a tall building that I knew had a courtyard in the middle (which Vincent had painted) with another bench on which to ponder. Later that evening I would linger outside on the terrace of the café Vincent had made appear so inviting and cozy, and gaze at the stars in rapt admiration.
That morning, I swung my feet over the side of the bed, and the walls of my hotel room tilted into a trapezoid.
Vertigo. Nausea rose and fell in swells.
Chills, heat rising, teeth chattering, hot, cold, thrashing, still.
My hip joint seeped poison into my side, into my legs, into my back.
All I’d wanted to do this day was to meander through the park and sit quietly in the courtyard at Espace van Gogh, which was right around the corner from my hotel.
I went nowhere. Instead, I was visited with lurid visions in hideous reds and greens, scenes inside the other café Vincent painted, the place he’d lived before moving into the Yellow House, Café de Nuit. A pool table with one harsh light over it, sad, slumped, depressing figures, the painting Vincent had said was the ugliest he’d ever done.
The people on the walk that day were enjoying the café on Place du Forum, but I was in the grip of the other painting, about which Vincent had written, the café is a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad, or commit a crime. This place where “Night Owls” can take refuge if they haven’t enough money to pay for lodgings or are too drunk to be taken in anywhere was not featured on The Walk.
Café de Nuit filled my fever-dreams.
My system had failed me in the most unpredictable, devastating way. Even if I could move, my intestines insisted on my staying. On top of it all, lugging my suitcase had carved a strip of agony from my arm up my shoulder up the side of my neck to my ear.
I was trapped.
Vincent came to Arles convinced that two things were his destiny: to paint and to bring artists together. He had not yet sold a painting, but here he felt as if he sailed on the cusp of his creative powers. He painted an Arlesienne, a woman with delicate, angled features, her chin resting on a slender hand, and a Zoave, an Algerian soldier, who he rendered in vibrant oranges and blues, a young man with a small face, a bull neck, and the eyes of a tiger.
Gauguin was the first of the artists to arrive. It was happening, Vincent’s destiny was opening. He poured happiness and hope into his work, and kept up a brisk pace, spending hours out in the blazing sun and wind.
Vincent and Paul painted together and often enjoyed vigorous discussions that lasted late into the night. Sometimes when we finish, Vincent wrote to Theo, our minds are as drained as an electric battery after discharge… We have been right in the midst of magic…
I had gradually begun to suspect that two things were my own destiny. I had won this trip by writing the winning essay at a conference I attended annually. I’d been first to Rome, of which Arles was a miniature replica. Next I’d gone to Geneva, then to the writing seminar in the Jura, where rich friendship and creative collaboration had increased my certainty that I was destined to travel and to write. This pilgrimage to walk in Vincent’s footsteps fulfilled both, and was a dream I’d had since I was a little girl and had first seen an image of van Gogh’s Bedroom.
All I wished to do on Day #2 was stroll over to Place Lamartine to finally see the Yellow House, but crunched up in bed squinting at my guidebook through a searing headache, I read, to my own stupidity-laced surprise, that it had been destroyed in the World War II bombings of 1944. How had I missed that? That night I’d hoped to gaze at the starry sky from the quai and feel what Vincent had felt as he painted Starry Night Over the Rhone, wishing to express hope by some star.
Inside this tiny space, seconds crawled to hours, day to starless night. I was alone with no hope of salvaging my time in Arles.
It turns out, Vincent learned, that sawing your ear off with a razor brings madness forth in a rush.
He began having bouts of melancholy and soon he teetered on the edge of psychosis. One evening, Gauguin was strolling through the gardens near the house and Vincent pounced on him, threatening him with a razor. Paul met Vincent’s eye and calmed him down, but left to spend the night in a hotel. Vincent hacked off part of his ear and carried it to a nearby brothel, where he plopped it, gloppy and bloody, into the hand of an unsuspecting woman named Rachel.
“Take good care of this,” he said, and returned home and crawled into bed. It must have been an excruciating night, for he had severed an artery. His ear burning as if on fire and gushing red onto the pillow, his mind spinning and screeching, his heart broken, Vincent must have willed himself to take each breath, his thin chest puffing out, then caving in. The police found him unconscious there, but there is no picture of bloodstained sheets, of Vincent’s pale, tortured expression, or of his hands unable to hold a paintbrush, his immobile feet. He was taken to the hospital, wracked with fear and heartache.
I awoke on Day #3 still feverish, dizzy, and now beginning to feel stabs of anxiety. I gaped at the tropical scene on the curtains. How would I get to my next destination, Aix? (Considering Paul Cézanne’s miserable temperament, what the hell was in store for me there?) I had planned to take the train, but could barely shuffle to the window. I picked up my three-inch cloth makeup bag and my finger joints weakly released it to clump to the floor. Equilibrium was almost within reach, I could feel it, but there was no way I could take the train. I phoned a driver.
Vincent, trapped in the hospital, was miserable, wretched. He later wrote to Gauguin, In my mental or nervous fever or madness—I am not too sure how to put it or what to call it—my thoughts sailed over many seas.
When he returned home from the hospital, his equilibrium fluctuated. He experienced moments when he was twisted with enthusiasm or madness or prophecy, but he knew he had lost Gauguin, and his dreams of the artist’s collective and his life’s work were at risk of crashing down upon him. Everything Vincent loved was in turmoil.
Vincent tried to start afresh, but his presence caused uneasiness all over Arles. The people filed a joint petition, and the mayor ordered him locked in an isolation cell in the hospital for a month while police searched the Yellow House.
By the time he was released, Vincent had come to think of his madness as a disease and had made plans to stay in an asylum in nearby Saint-Rémy, but he would not be allowed to paint outside at first. He’d be imprisoned there, too.
Vincent packed up his things inside the Yellow House, his studio, now come to grief. He had painted and sketched 300 works here in Arles. He wondered whether it was all a losing battle, this weakness of character. Had it been the drink that had gone to his head, the sun, the mistral? The artistic and intellectual stimulation of having Gauguin near? How had he missed the signs?
He wrote to Theo that everything was vague and strange. He pondered the condition of an artist in nearby Marseilles who had committed suicide: Vincent didn’t think it had been too much absinthe that caused the man to kill himself, but who knew?
As he left Arles, Vincent was filled with a limb-numbing remorse. He had failed himself.
A large, solidly built man in shades with a short, trimmed beard easily tossed my baggage into the trunk of his car.
“Vous etes mal? Je suis desolee,” he crooned, then gestured to the big car and pointed around the corner up ahead. “Les rues est très petites.” The streets were too narrow for the car. We’d have to take the long way out of town.
I slumped in the back seat as the car rolled up the street. On my left was Espace van Gogh, the place Vincent had suffered so.
We passed the hammam where my condition had been unknowingly aggravated.
A thought tugged at me.
We turned the corner and there was a group of people, noses to a placard.
We drove over Pont van Gogh, across the Rhone where I’d missed the starry night because I’d been incapacitated.
A couple stood holding up their map, then the man pointed ahead and they walked in Vincent’s footsteps.
It was all I’d wanted to do.
Then I knew.
What if all you can do
you can do?
This was exactly what was meant to happen here.
Erin Byrne writes travel essays, poetry, fiction, and screenplays. Her work has won numerous awards including Grand Prize Solas Awards for Travel Story of the Year, the Reader’s Favorite Award, Foreword Reviews Book of the Year Finalist, and an Accolade Award for film.
Erin’s writing appears in publications including Vestoj, Burning the Midnight Oil, Adventures of a Lifetime, and The Best Travel Writing anthologies. She is editor of Vignettes & Postcards from Paris and Vignettes & Postcards from Morocco (Reputation Books, 2016), and writer of The Storykeeper, an award-winning film about occupied Paris, made with Dutch filmmaker Rogier Van Beeck Calkoen. Erin teaches at Shakespeare and Company Bookstore and on Deep Travel trips, and hosts literary salons in Paris and Sausalito.
Erin’s screenplay, Siesta, is in pre-production in Spain, and she is currently working on a novel series, The Storykeeper of Paris. She reads and performs her work in many places around the world including exotic cafés in Marrakech, underground caverns in Paris, and bookstores on the dock of the bay in San Francisco. She lives in both the Bay Area and Seattle, and travels around the globe, but is drawn most magnetically to Paris. For details, please visit her website: www.e-byrne.com. “In Vincent’s Footsteps” won Gold in the Bad Trip Category of the Tenth Annual Solas Awards.