Vincent Van Gogh, the Dutch post-impressionist painter, spent his last few years in the south of France where he painted some of his most famous works. In the two years that Van Gogh spent in Provence, he produced around 200 paintings and 100 drawings of the area’s people and landscapes.
Some of those landscapes contain lots of wavy lines which portray the movement of cypress trees, wheat fields and other vegetation. But what was causing all that movement? Was it just a gentle breeze, or could it have been that powerful wind known as the Mistral which roars down the Rhone Valley through Provence?
If you’ve ever experienced that gusting wind that makes it almost impossible to walk, it’s easy to see it in the swirling painted sky of Starry Night, one of Van Gogh’s most well-known paintings.
Let’s Talk About That Wind
Ce sacré Mistral! (That blessed, or damned, Mistral!) That’s what the locals call it. Provence claims 32 different winds, but the Mistral is master of them all. The name “Mistral” means masterly in the Provençal language, and according to local expressions, that Master Wind can blow the tail off a donkey or the horns off a bull. However, this powerful wind doesn’t just snatch away donkey tails and bull horns: it can also make off with roof tiles, patio furniture, laundry, shallow-rooted trees, flowerpots, rubbish bins, hats, sunglasses… basically anything that isn’t tied down.
The Mistral Causes Problems
Some say that once the Mistral starts to blow, it will continue for three, six, or nine days. During this time, people and animals try to stay indoors, but they can’t escape the wind’s effects. When it’s howling outside, pets are said to misbehave more than usual, and people blame the wind’s unrelenting roar for causing headaches, making them cranky, and leaving them sleepless. It’s even said to drive people mad – le vent qui rend fou. One bit of folklore says that once upon a time those who committed a crime while under the maddening influence of the Mistral would have gotten a lighter sentence because of it.
The Locals Like It
With all these negative effects, you might be confused to find that the people of Provence are actually rather fond of their Master Wind. Even though it might drive them crazy for three, six, or nine days, it’s actually quite beneficial to life in Provence. It’s thanks, in great part, to this wind that the area sees so much sunshine. The wind blows away the clouds and pollution, leaving behind bright blue skies and fresh air.
Painting in the Wind
Vincent Van Gogh moved to Arles in 1888 where he was inspired by the pure light and colors that shone through after the Mistral had blown the clouds away.
But even when the Mistral was raging, Van Gogh was determined to paint. He would drive iron pegs into the ground and tie the legs of his easel to them to keep it from blowing away. Then he had to tie down the canvas – what determination!
Did the Mistral Drive Him Mad?
It’s a well-known fact that Van Gogh had mental problems, and moving to a place with a vent qui rend fou (a wind that drives you mad) probably wasn’t the best move for him. In 1889, after the “ear incident” Vincent committed himself to an asylum in St. Remy de Provence where he continued to paint between his bouts of depression.
Starry Night or Windy Night?
It was in St. Remy that Van Gogh completed one of his most recognized works, The Starry Night. When you look at this painting and see the swirls in the sky and the swaying cypress trees, you can’t help but wonder whether Van Gogh was actually painting the howling Mistral wind – especially if you compare it to Starry Night over the Rhone which is a very calm starry night.
Many artists have shown the effects of the wind by painting branches or foliage bending over, but I think Van Gogh actually painted the swirling, invisible wind in the sky. In my humble opinion, this famous Starry Night painting should be called Windy Night.
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