The charming Provence town will forever be linked with a troubled Dutch artist

Vincent Van Gogh travelled to Provence in February 1888 in search of “a different light”, and the fifteen months he spent there proved to be the most prolific period of his life, when he produced over 300 paintings and drawings, many of which are now among his best known works. On the Van Gogh Walking Tour visitors can stop at several spots where the artist set up his easel. Marked with large panels with illustrations of his paintings, they include: Cafe terrace at night in the Place du Forum (today the site of the Van Gogh-themed Cafe de la Nuit); the river embankment where he painted Starry night over the Rhone; the Place Lamartine, location of The Yellow House, which he briefly shared with fellow artist Paul Gauguin (and destroyed in 1944 by Allied bombers targeting a nearby bridge over the river); and Garden of the hospital at Arles.

The courtyard garden in the Espace Van Gogh has been replanted according to the artist’s 1889 painting of it

The hospital is where Van Gogh’s dream of establishing a community of artists came to an end. Mentally ill, he was treated at the hospital after slicing his ear and later committed himself to a nearby asylum, thus ending his Arles sojourn. Today renamed the Espace Van Gogh, the former Holy Spirit hospital is built around a courtyard garden which has been replanted according to Van Gogh’s 1889 painting of it. The buildings now house the city’s multi-media library, university classrooms and an exhibition space showcasing emerging artists.

While Arles has no museum dedicated to Van Gogh or even one of his works on permanent display, the Vincent Van Gogh Foundation comes closest. This modern, private gallery pays homage to Van Gogh’s legacy by exploring its impact on modern and contemporary artists through a series of exhibitions of their work. Previous shows have included Van Gogh-inspired pieces such as a Hockney chair and a Rauschenberg acrylic sunflower. A few original Van Gogh paintings and drawings on loan from international museums appear alongside the modern works.

Vincent van Gogh Foundation

However, Van Gogh is not the only attraction in town for art-lovers. Just as Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry is credited with rejuvenating the ailing port city of Bilbao in northern Spain with the 1997 opening of the Guggenheim Museum, hopes are high that one of his latest projects will also have “the Bilbao effect”. Luma Arles is a multi-disciplinary arts complex established by the Swiss collector and pharmaceutical heiress Maja Hoffmann, who grew up in the city. Gehry’s design for the twisting tower clad in reflective aluminium panels was inspired by the craggy Les Alpilles hills near Arles.

The tower’s irregularly placed tiles echo Van Gogh’s Impressionist brushstrokes as he rendered the rock formations in 1888, while a vast circular glass atrium recalls the nearby Roman amphitheatre. With each panel reflecting the light differently, the building changes appearance as one moves around it, its hues changing throughout the day. The tower accommodates artists and designers in residence in working studios.

Architect Frank Gehry’s Luma Arles, Photo: Iwan Baan

Several former industrial buildings on the 20-acre site of a former railyard have been converted into gallery spaces, such as the light-filled Grande Halle, to host special exhibitions. The site also features a public garden, the Parc des Ateliers. Predictably, the development has drawn a mixed reaction. While one architecture critic called the tower a “stainless steel tornado”, some locals have dismissed it as resembling a crumpled drinks can.

Housed in the 15th century Great Priory of the Knights of Malta, the Musée Réattu is dedicated to its founder, the prolific neo-Classical painter and collector Jacques Réattu (1760-1833), a native of Arles whose studio was in the building and who bequeathed many of this works to the city. The museum exhibits works from the 17th to the 19th centuries, notably a collection of 57 drawings by Picasso from 1971 that he donated to the museum following his second exhibition there, thus creating one of the first public collections dedicated to the artist. There are also works by modern artists such as Leger, Dufy, Gauguin and others, while Picasso’s 1937 painting of Lee Miller as an Arlesienne is another highlight.

Musee Reattu, including Picasso’s portrait of Lee Miller as an Arlesienne (r.)

In 1965 the Musée Réattu became the first fine arts museum museum in France to add a photography collection, which now comprises some 4,000 works by the likes of Richard Avedon, Robert Doisneau, Dora Maar, Man Ray, Edward Weston, Brassaï and Henri Cartier-Bresson. The eclectic selection extends to sculpture, video works, sketches of fashion designs donated by Arles-born Christian Lacroix and a sound art section. The museum also boasts the only original trace of Van Gogh’s stay in Arles – a letter from the artist to Paul Gauguin. A bonus: Sweeping views of the River Rhone from the upper floors.

Arles also has a long-standing reputation as a centre of photography. The highly respected National Photography School has new, custom-built premises across the road from Luma, while Les Rencontres d’Arles, an annual summer photography festival, occupies spaces throughout the city.

Les Rencontres d’Arles summer photography festival fills venues throughout the city