One of my most significant and memorable moments in France has been a visit to St. Paul de Mausole, built in 1122 as an exquisite example of Provencal Romanesque architecture . It is said that in the Gallo-Roman era, a natural spring drew pilgrims to St. Remy de Provence to call on the goddess of health. The true fame of St. Paul came centuries later from one occupant who spent a year there from May 8, 1889 through May 16, 1890. Still today a facility for those in need of emotional or psychiatric care, the hospital was known for its humane and generous treatment of its most famous occupant, Vincent Van Gogh. It was here that the artist wished to reside after he cut off his ear.
Upon the approach, one instantly experiences a sense of place – serene, silent, and spectacularly preserved. The original spaces, constructed on a vast expanse of land, include a cloister walk, Van Gogh’s 3 simple rooms, one of which is a studio overlooking the finely manicured gardens, and an utterly magical
Near his room, and not far from the cloisters, there is now an art therapy workshop, created by the association Valetudo, which interweaves art, research, and treatment. It is evident that the environment in which they live, collaborate, and offer one another feedback on their creative work, sets the standard for a healing process, which fosters self-expression and a re-connection with oneself and the natural world. Original artwork by those now in treatment is displayed in a gallery, and vividly represents the introspection of participants in the program.
Their canvasses are universally moving, revealing their inner most journeys. Art, for those who reside here, is a means through which one can both safely feel and sometimes experience relief from the pain of their present state – while moving, in compassionate company, toward something new.
During Van Gogh’s 353 days, he often strolled through the cloisters, a place of respite for a struggling soul. Looking out on the wheat fields from his windows, and at liberty to experience the endless grounds, he created more than 100 drawings and 143 oil paintings. These include: “The Irises”, “Starry Night”, “Olive Orchard “, “Wheat field with Cypress”, “The First Steps”, “Wheat field with a Reaper”,”La Sieste”, “The Roadmenders”, “Garden in the St-Paul Hospice”, “Vase with Iris”, “Vincent’s room in Arles”, and many others.
Now housed in museums or private collections, the incredible canvasses created during his residence at St. Paul make it clear that in an atmosphere of unique beauty and unwavering support from caregivers, Van Gogh, and now others more than a century later, could flourish.
Nancy Harris Frohlich