Van Gogh and the Provencal Wind

Artist Going to Work (on a non-windy day) 1888

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.

Starry Night 1889 – or should it be called Windy Night?

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.

Cypress 1889. There is a lot of movement in the tree and the sky.

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.

Van Gogh’s bedroom 1888. When the Mistral is blowing in Provence, it’s best just to stay in bed.

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.

Wheat field with cypress 1889. Another sky full of wind?

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!

Van Gogh self-portrait with bandaged ear 1889

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 over the Rhone 1888 shows a calm, wind-free evening
The more famous Starry Night 1889 looks to be a bit windier

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.

Curious Histories of Provence book by Margo Lestz
You can read more stories like this in Curious Histories of Provence: Tales from the South of France by Margo Lestz

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14 comments

  1. This is throughly enjoyable. Van Gogh is my favorite artist. I like your theory regarding Starry Night being Windy Night.

    1. Thanks, Jay. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. 🙂 It makes sense to me…
      We really enjoyed spending time with you when we were in the US. 🙂

    1. Hi Julia, Yes, I miss lots of things about Provence…
      Hope you are well and maybe we’ll be able to meet up in France in the near future. 🙂

  2. Thanks Margo for a very interesting article. I think you are right. Many who view the swirls in his paintings attribute them to the turbulence of Van Gogh’s mind, however your final comparison of Starry Night over the Rhone with Starry Night convinces me.
    I do hope you continue well. With very best wishes, Paula

    1. Thank you, Paula. I’m sure he had a turbulent mind too and maybe the Mistral had something to do with that as well. He was a tortured soul who made beautiful art.
      I’m pretty convinced that he was painting the wind though. I can almost hear it howling when I look at the painting. But who knows.
      Hope you are keeping well. 🙂

  3. Hi Margo, thanks for showcasing some lovely Van Gogh paintings and the tie-in with the mistral winds. I always learn something new from your posts!

  4. good day “mon amie”,
    this is your friend from Nice, living in Canada.
    thank you for the info about VanGogh and Provence.
    we went to Arles some years ago and “felt” the presence of the master.. with your words, we feel it more now.
    thank you.
    joyeux Noel et Bonne annee.
    jean.

    1. Bonjour Jean, It’s so nice to hear from you. Glad you enjoyed the article about Van Gogh and the Mistral. Hope you are well and wishing you a joyeux Noel et Bonne annee too.

    1. Hi Mindy,
      Yes, Van Gogh left so much beauty behind – especially in his paintings of Provence.
      We are missing you too. Thanks so much for your hospitality when we were there. xx

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