On 24th December 1888 Vincent Van Gogh threatened Paul Gauguin and cut off the lobe of his own left ear. Eighty local residents in Arles signed a petition demanding that he was confined, and in May 1889 Van Gogh commited himself to the insane asylum in Saint Rémy de Provence. When he arrived at the asylum he was met by Doctor Théophile Peyron, the director. The doctor welcomed his new guest who calmly undertook the admission formalities, and confirmed his request for voluntary confinement.
The house was vast and partly unoccupied, thirty rooms were empty and Van Gogh was able to use one of these as his studio. He stayed in Saint Paul de Mausole until his departure fifty three weeks later. His period of intense creative activity there changed the course of western art, and produced an astonishing output of 150 paintings and 100 drawings. Among them are many of his best know works including Starry Night and Cornfield and Cypress Trees. Two months after leaving Saint Remy Van Gogh shot himself in the chest, and died aged 37.
Van Gogh’s precarious mental state caused his extraordinary outburst of creativity in Provence, but the hospital of Saint Paul de Mausole was the catalyst. During his confinement this remarkable institution encouraged his painting and gave him the facilities and space to work, and most importantly allowed him to paint in the local countryside accompanied by an attendant. The far sighted Doctor Peyron was practicing an early form of art therapy, and Saint Paul de Mausole continues as a working psychiatric hospital today. It now cares for more than 100 patients and offers them workshops in art therapy, music and painting among architecture and landscape of staggering beauty.
We visited Saint Paul de Mausole in September 2006 when the photographs in this article were taken. The hospital is located in the monastery of Saint Paul which dates from the 10th century, and the beautiful buildings with their Romanesque cloister and church , which ares seen above, were taken over by the Fransciscans in the 17th century who started to use them as an insane asylum. Following the Revolution the monks were expelled, but the institution continued to work with psychiatric patients through to the present day, the only interruptions being World War 1 when prisoners from Alsace Lorraine were interned there, including Nobel Prize winner, organist and Bach scholar Albert Schweitzer, and World War II when it was requisitioned by the German Army.
The buildings were extensively restored in 2002, and are now run by the not-for-profit Association et Centre d'Art Valetudo. The monastery is open to visitors, and a permanent exhibition of paintings by patients is displayed in the cloister and renovated Romanesque staircase. At the top of this stair is a reconstruction of Van Gogh’s room; the view through the barred windows (below) of that so familiar landscape with its olive and cypress trees in intensely moving.
Saint Paul de Mausole is an inspirational establishment that pioneered the treatment of psychiatric illness, and it still continues today the therapies that fanned the flames of Vincent Van Gogh’s creativity. There is no better summary of its work than the manifesto for a painter’s co-operative that Van Gogh set out in a letter to his brother Leo: - “Artists won’t find anything better than living together, giving their paintings to their association, which in return would allow them to live and work. “
Now, for more on therapy and France take An Overgrown Path to Serendipity 2
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