As a longtime, devoted lover of impressionist art, the Saint-Paul de Mausole Monastery was high on my list of places to visit during a springtime trip to Provence. My cousin Kelly and I spent four magical days in Provence using Aix-en-Provence as our base.
You probably know something about Vincent van Gogh, including his longstanding battle with mental illness, but you may not know that he spent almost all the last year of his life in this idyllic setting in the south of France.
Born into an upper middle-class family in the Netherlands in 1853, Van Gogh was interested in art and started drawing at an early age. Already in ill health, he began painting seriously in his late 20's after spending several years drifting. To save money, he moved to Paris in 1886 where he lived with his brother Theo and met many artists of the day including Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Camille Pissarro and Paul Gaugin.
This self portrait, painted in Paris in 1886 is now in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
Tired of Paris and its cold, northern climate, his mental and physical health deteriorating, Van Gogh moved to Arles in February 1888. There he was inspired by the beautiful colors of southern France and he produced almost 200 paintings
This painting was done in June, 1888 and is in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
While he was in Arles, Van Gogh lived with Gaugin and the two painted together for two months. In December 1888 Van Gogh and Gaugin had an argument which resulted in Van Gogh famously amputating his own ear. In May of 1889 Van Gogh committed himself to Saint-Paul de Mausole, an asylum dedicated to the treatment of the mentally ill. There, Van Gogh was again inspired by the beautiful colors and landscape surrounding the facility. During his year there, he created almost 150 oil paintings and more than 100 drawings, from within and outside the walls of the facility.
History of St. Paul de Mausole
During the Gallo-Roman period pilgrims flocked to Saint-Rémy-de-Provence to bathe in a natural spring said to have healing properties. A chapel was built on the site in 982 and a monastery dedicated to the Apostle Paul was built around it in the 11th century. From its origin, taking in, caring for and healing the mentally ill has been its mission. It remains an in-patient facility for mentally ill patients today, caring for about 100 patients whose treatment includes art therapy.
Although Van Gogh's mental illness was not successfully treated, by all accounts he was well cared for at Saint-Paul de Mausole. Approaching the facility via this lovely walkway gives you a sense of calm and well-being before ever walking through the door.
Corridor in the Asylum, below, was painted in 1889 and is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. To the right, my photo of the corridor. I love the colors he used.
Walking up the stairs, you are treated to these beautiful paintings.
When you reach the top of the stairs, you are greeted by this well-known work he painted of his bedroom in Arles while at Saint-Paul.
The facility was less than half full when Van Gogh arrived in May 1889. Not only was he given this private room on the second floor, he also had access to a studio where he painted.
This view from his window inspired many landscape paintings during the year he was there.
The room across from his bedroom contained these bathtubs and information about how mental health was treated at the facility during Van Gogh's time there. Baths were considered therapeutic and these are the bathtubs he would have used.
The peaceful inner courtyard.
As you stroll through the grounds you can enjoy copies of some of his paintings.
The Starry Night, possibly Van Gogh's best-known painting, was created in June 1889, soon after he arrived at Saint-Paul. In a letter to his brother Theo, Van Gogh expressed his disappointment in The Starry Night, labeling it a failure. Like other artists of his day, Van Gogh died never knowing how critically acclaimed and popular his artwork would become.
A statue of Van Gogh greets visitors on the grounds.
Despite the care he received at Saint-Paul de Mausole, it was a difficult year for Van Gogh as his mental health continued to deteriorate. In May 1890, exactly one year after entering Saint-Paul, Van Gogh left Saint-Rémy-de-Provence to move closer to Theo in Auvers-sur-Oise, just outside Paris. On July 27, at the age of 37, Van Gogh shot himself through the chest and died two days later.
Saint-Paul de Mausole provides insight to the year Van Gogh spent there. It's well-curated and well worth your time when in the area.
➜ Top Tips
Saint-Paul de Mausole is about 30 minutes south of Avignon, an hour northwest of Aix-en-Provence and a mile from Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. It's easy to reach by car.
Check the opening times carefully.
Plan to spend at least 30 minutes there.
Don't miss the Van Gogh Museum when you're in Amsterdam!