100 Years Later, Arles, France, to Pay Homage to Famous Visitor It Locked Up


Arles, the town that had Vincent Van Gogh locked up in a mental asylum as a public nuisance, is finally honoring the painter after almost a century of neglect.

The town has declared 1988 Van Gogh Year and is turning the local mental hospital into an arts center. It will also hold the town’s first exhibition of the Dutch-born artist’s works.

Van Gogh’s supporters see the celebrations as making amends for locking up the man whose paintings now fetch phenomenal prices.


“Old people in Arles whose parents heard tell of Van Gogh say he was treated like an alcoholic, foreign tramp,” said Jennifer Lacote, a tour guide and Van Gogh specialist. “They wanted him out of the way.”

The town continued to shun his memory after he left. Reminders of his stay from February, 1888, to May, 1889--one of the most creative periods in his life--are almost nonexistent.

“A series of disasters has all but obliterated his memory,” Lacote said. None of his works are left in the town.

In the 1930s, the famous lifting bridge painted by Van Gogh as the “Pont de Langlois” was removed.

The yellow house where he lived and painted his “Sunflowers” was bombed by the Allies in June, 1944. The cafe owned by the proud-faced Madame Ginoux--”L’Arlesienne” (the woman of Arles) by Van Gogh--suffered the same fate.

In the 1960s, a cafe painted by Van Gogh was destroyed to make way for a bank and a supermarket.


In July bulldozers removed one of the last remaining buildings painted by Van Gogh, a derelict structure featured in “Farmhouse in a Wheatfield.”

Van Gogh came to Arles in search of the clear Mediterranean light, a low cost of living and the famous beauty of its raven-haired women.

But he never escaped from abject poverty and nervous crises that were to plague him until he shot himself near Paris in 1890.

In December, 1888, he mutilated his left ear after a quarrel with painter Paul Gauguin and took the severed lobe to a prostitute named Rachel.

The townspeople, headed by a local grocer, drafted a petition calling for “Vincent Vood” to be interned in a mental asylum as a danger to women and children. Children threw stones at the ragged, red-bearded painter with staring eyes.

The mayor had Van Gogh committed to a padded cell in the Hotel Dieu Hospital. But the painter’s brother Theo soon secured his release and transferred him to the more congenial surroundings of a hospital run by nuns in nearby Saint-Remy.

Van Gogh year marks a triumph for those who have campaigned for several years to get the town to honor its most famous visitor.

Yolande Clergue, who has set up a private Vincent Van Gogh Foundation, is asking painters, sculptors, musicians and writers to contribute works for a permanent exhibition in his honor.

“A small town like Arles could never afford to buy a Van Gogh,” she said. “But with the gifts of artists, we can organize a permanent homage to him.”

The collection will provide a focus for visitors who come to the town in search of traces of the painter. Among artists asked to contribute are David Hockney and Francis Bacon.

The only previous memorial to the painter is a meager bronze of his face in a public garden, but it is not on the tour guides’ itinerary.

Some people see this neglect as reflecting the same hostility that drove him out of town.

“The people of Arles are not very proud of him,” Lacote said. “Few could tell you where he lived.”

Hotelier Raymond Gernez, who has painted his facade a bright sunflower yellow, puts it down to bureaucratic inertia.