As we count down to the delayed opening of Seattle’s “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience,” I remember my unforgettable immersion into Van Gogh’s life in Europe, including in Arles, France.
I have been a Vincent van Gogh fan for many years, and I’ve been fortunate to see his work in person in renowned museums at home and abroad. But it was one sunny summer day in Arles, France on a free walking tour where his presence was so tangible it moved me to tears.
Vincent van Gogh in Arles
While in France a few years ago, we made Arles a home base for the Provençal leg of our journey, and I’m so glad we did. (Thank you for the suggestion, Rick Steves!) Vincent van Gogh, the Dutch Post-Impressionist painter and one of the most well-known and influential figures in art history, spent more than fourteen months in Arles in search of warmer weather and the bright light and colors of Provence. (Source: Fondation Vincent van Gogh Arles.) You can read more about his life from the Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam (one of the best museums I have visited in my lifetime).
“As you can see, I am immersing myself in color—I’ve held back from that until now; and I don’t regret it.”—Vincent van Gogh, The Hague, September 3, 1882, to Theo van Gogh
Since we were fortunate to see some of his most famous paintings in Musée d’Orsay in Paris earlier on that trip and since we were traveling on a budget with young children, while in Arles, we opted to do a little free walking tour instead of visiting the local museum which I am sure is worthwhile. Our most memorable stop was the Hôtel-Dieu-Saint-Espirit.
Directions | Arles, France | Free!
The former Hôtel-Dieu (also known as the Hôtel-Dieu-Saint-Esprit and the Hospital in Arles) was built in the 16th and 17th centuries, and its buildings encircle a garden that was a subject of two of Van Gogh’s paintings while he resided there in 1888 and again in 1889 as his mental health deteriorated.
As we approached the formidable stone entry of the Hôtel-Dieu, I had no idea what would greet me when I walked through the door, and it took my breath away. Once inside, we were within a vibrant garden that replicated that which Van Gogh depicted in his paintings, complete with a beautiful fountain in the middle. What moved me the most, I suppose, is that in the end despite leading a tormented and tragic life, all that remained is beauty and color.
“Ideas for work are coming to me in abundance…I’m going like a painting-locomotive.”—Vincent van Gogh, Arles, on or about September 11, 1888, to Theo van Gogh
About the Touring Immersive Van Gogh Exhibits
Since I appreciate Vincent van Gogh and am a bit of a romantic, I (along with many people I know) was caught up in the hype and perfectly timed marketing of the competing immersive Van Gogh experiences touring the country, and immediately bought a family package to Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience in Seattle this fall. Sure, a little voice in my head told me there were some red flags, but the marketing of the event was spot on. They timed the release of the tickets on social media perfectly, just as there seemed to be a glimmer of hope of a light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel, coming out of a very long hard winter. It felt like something we could all look forward to and a relatively safe way that we could reconnect with the arts after a very long hiatus.
Fever, the company in charge of the show in Seattle, came under criticism soon thereafter. In addition to general complaints to the Better Business Bureau, the show experienced delays to its opening, further adding fuel to the fire.
Since I have been fortunate to visit renowned museums both at home and abroad, I’m heading to the experience with relatively low expectations (especially given the recent press), but hopeful. At the very least, I hope that my children find it to be an accessible way to experience the arts and that they will develop an appreciation for Vincent van Gogh’s work.
I will share a more thorough review once I attend the experience.
Supporting Our Museums
Before you shell out a lot of money for an immersive Van Gogh experience that may or may not live up to your expectations, or even if you do, take a look at how you might support the arts and art museums in your community. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on the arts in the United States, and by visiting your local museums and performing arts organizations or making a direct donation you can do your part to keep this important sector thriving.
If you’d like a list of where to see real Van Gogh paintings in person, Lonely Planet has an interesting guide, available here.
While I am not aware of opportunities to see Van Gogh’s original work in person in the Pacific Northwest, I was thrilled to hear about the Monet exhibit being offered at Seattle Art Museum, and a few months ago, we ventured back to an in-person museum for the first time since the pandemic and loved our experience there. It feels optimistic that we are at a point in pandemic life where we can visit museums and experience fine art again. I, for one, have certainly missed them.
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