On 20 February 1888, Vincent van Gogh arrived in Arles. Before that, he had lived in Paris for two years, where he had developed a thoroughly modern style of painting.
During the more than fourteen months which he spent in Arles, he created a multitude of paintings and drawings, many of which are nowadays seen as highlights of late 19th century art.
Tired of the busy city life and the cold northern climate, Van Gogh had headed South in search of warmer weather, and above all to find the bright light and colours of Provence so as to further modernize his new way of painting. According to his brother Theo, he went “first to Arles to get his bearings and then probably on to Marseille.”
That plan changed however: Van Gogh found in the beautiful countryside of Arles what he had been looking for, and never went to Marseille.
At first, the weather in the South was unseasonably cold, but after a few weeks Van Gogh was able to set out and discover subjects for his works. Vincent had a collection of Japanese prints, had read about Japan and become a great admirer. He had hoped to find the light, colours and harmony in the South that he knew from these prints. He did, and started to paint very Japanese paintings of blossoming trees and the Pont de Langlois. During the summer he drew and painted harvest scenes.
Painting the human figure had always been one of Van Gogh’s most important artistic goals, and he had a special love for peasant paintings. In Arles, he decided that he wanted to modernize this genre, by choosing the subject of the sower. He also painted portraits and still-lives, and confessed to Theo : “I am painting with the gusto of a Marseillais eating bouillabaisse”.
In May, Van Gogh rented the yellow house, in which he lived and set up his studio. He had hopes of establishing a collective studio in the South, were other painters would join him.
On 23 October, Paul Gauguin came to Arles. The two artists lived and painted together for two months. It was a time filled with great mutual inspiration, but in the end their characters and artistic temperaments clashed.
On 23 December, Van Gogh suffered a mental breakdown – probably a first sign of his illness – and cut off a part of his left ear. Gauguin left, and Van Gogh’s dream of a studio with other painters was shattered.
He spent some more time in the hospital after a second breakdown in February 1889. He continued to work in Arles for a few more months, but had himself interned voluntarily in the asylum in Saint-Rémy on 8 May 1889.