Being Vincent

Posted on 29 May 2019

Life imitates art – or is it the other way round? In the South of France, our columnist learns the answer.


I always start so hopeful that surely this time I’ll be able to cross an item off my List of Things To Do Before I Am Too Old.

It’s a long list but never seems to get shorter. I’ve written about the time I tried to cross off item No. 43: ‘See the Ganges by moonlight’, and somehow wandered ankle-deep into a field doubling as the outdoor neighbourhood toilet. Last year I tried item No. 27: ‘Spend a night in Dracula’s castle at Poenari in the Carpathian mountains’, and was chased away by wild bears before the sun could even set.

This time I tried one of the easier items on the list.

I’ve always loved Vincent van Gogh’s painting of the café on Place du Forum in Arles. Look – there’s the terrace of the café all lit up in warm yellow between the cobbled street and the beautiful starry night. People sip absinthe and in the foreground are lovely open chairs and tables, welcoming you to sit and enjoy the warm evening. It’s the perfect moment in a journey or a life: you’re in a foreign place but the day’s travel is done, and here’s a comfortable place to sit and be content. When I discovered that the café still exists and is open, that you can sit on that very chair, I added No. 83: ‘Have a drink on the terrace of the Café La Nuit’.

Last week I arrived in Arles at 3pm. The café was closed. This is something Vincent didn’t paint: there’s a siesta every afternoon, and the café only opens at 6pm. Never mind, the evening is best anyway, to sit under the bright starry Van Gogh sky in the yellow light, sipping something strong.

I wandered the empty streets and found the place on the bank of the Rhône where he painted the starry night. Have you ever wondered how Vincent chose that very spot on the riverbank? Was it because it offered the best perspective on the curving river, the best composition? No, it was the spot closest to his house. He only had to walk about 100 metres in a straight line to set up his easel. He was a great artist, but just as lazy as you or me.

I came back to the café at 6pm. It was still closed. 6.30 came. Still closed. 7pm. Still closed. A local shrugged. ‘Sometimes they don’t open,’ he said.

I sat on one of the chairs on the terrace. Sure, it wasn’t the same as being bathed in yellow sunflower light and being served a drink, but at least I could sit there and enjoy the starry night. Clouds came over. It started to rain. It was cold and unfriendly. I peered in through the locked glass doors and noticed the high prices, the tourist-oriented cocktails and the plastic menus.

I looked to my left, and there was another café, its windows lit with yellow light, heads bobbing about inside. You can just see its side window in Vincent’s painting.

Inside it was buzzing with locals arguing over their newspapers, flirting with waitresses. An elderly matador held court on a wicker chair. There was cheap beer and laughter and the barman served a large pastis with just the right amount of cold water. I sat awash in warm French chatter and looked out at the cold terrace next door. A couple of tourists on the square took a photograph then wandered off to find somewhere else they’d read about in some blog.

The place Vincent painted doesn’t exist any more. He painted a place that wasn’t famous, that didn’t appear on anyone’s To Do List. He painted a place like where I was right now. Sometimes the world doesn’t give you what you’re looking for. Thank goodness for that.

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