Van Gogh’s Therapy: Art

written by gallery associate Sara Burd

I recently spent some time in the South of France and visited a beautiful city called Saint Rémy de Provence. It’s a picturesque town with century old trees lining farm roads leading to chateaus and fruit orchards. The summer sun heats the lavender and olive trees, making everything smell like you’ve just entered a L’Occitane shop.

While I was there in Saint Rémy, I visited Saint Paul de Mausole, a 1000+ year old monastery dedicated to helping those who had suffered mental illness. The monastery is at the foot of the Alps, next to an ancient Roman site called Glanum. An olive grove spans out across the fields in front of the building, while the lavender, poppies, irises, and almond trees decorate the back. The monastery is best known for treating Vincent Van Gogh.

Van Gogh spent a significant amount of time in Provence (this is reflected in his works). He lived in Arles for over a year, where he painted his famous Cafe Terrace at Night. This is also the city where he cut off his own ear. He was treated by Dr. Felix Rey, who had coincidentally treated another person whose ear had been cut off (this was not a common occurrence, so Van Gogh really lucked out with this doctor!). Dr. Rey became an influential figure in Van Gogh’s road to recovery. He also diagnosed Van Gogh with epilepsy, which he was treated for when at the monastery. The artist was very close with Dr. Rey and painted a portrait of the doctor as thanks for his compassion and care. After months of hospital treatment in Arles, Vincent Van Gogh checked himself into the Saint Paul de Mausole asylum on May 8, 1889 and stayed there until May 16, 1890.

Dr. Théophile Peyron looked after Van Gogh during his time in the monastery and encouraged his art. The doctor and nuns knew that art was a means of emotional expression and could see that it helped Van Gogh heal during his time at Saint Paul. Even though the term “art therapy” wasn’t coined until 1942 by British artist Adrian Hill, his medical team believed in the idea. The nuns gave him a room with a window that opened up to a view of the almond trees, lavender, and iris gardens at the foot of the Alps. This room and view inspired a large number of his works. They also gave him a separate room for his art supplies.

During his year at the monastery, he created 150 paintings and 100 drawings. And some of his most famous works were completed in Saint Rémy, including Irises, Starry Night (he painted 21 versions), Olive Grove, and Self Portrait.