Being There

In September 1888, while living in Arles, France, Vincent Van Gogh painted The Café Terrace on the Place du Forum. The painting (shown below) depicts the brightly lit outdoor café at night under a starry sky. (The painting was completed approximately nine months before his iconic Starry Night.)

Café Terrace on the Place du Forum, Arles
 Vincent Van Gogh  (1888)
Dallas Art MuseumDallas, Texas

In the mid- 1990’s while teaching At Appalachian State University, I led several study broad trips to Lugano, Switzerland. During the five-week term each summer, my students and I made long weekend trips to Venice and Florence, Italy. One year we made such a trip to Arles.

            One day while we were in Arles, we found ourselves ready for lunch while at the Place du Forum. We took one of a number of tables in the large open area, from which we could see a number of the small businesses and restaurants that flanked the area, most of which catered to tourists, like ourselves. Each restaurant owned a designated number of the tables, so a few moments after we were seated a waiter from one of the restaurants came promptly to take our orders.

            While waiting for our food, one of my students asked me, “Do you think Vincent painted anything in this part of Arles?”

            “I can’t be sure,” I replied, “but Arles is not that big. I think it’s entirely possible he spent some time here.” My reply seemed to satisfy the questioner.

            Across from our table, I saw an apothecary, or a drugstore as we might call it. In front of the establishment were three or four kiosks, each displaying postcards. Thinking that I might follow lunch by picking up a few cards, I announced my intentions. Several of the students said they would like to do likewise.

            When I approached one of the kiosks, I saw it was filled with cards showing reproductions of Vincent’s paintings. I selected a number of cards, including The Café Terrace on the Place du Forum. As I was paying for the cards, I asked the cashier if she knew whether Vincent Van Gogh ever painted in the area. Her English was not perfect but she understood the gist of my question. After processing the person behind me, she came around from behind the counter and took my sleeve. “Come!” she said, as she began pulling me in the direction of the door. When we had exited the store, she took my left hand and placed it as high as she could on the broad doorframe. Gently turning me so I was facing left of her store, she pointed to the postcard in my right hand with Vincent’s painting of the Place du Forum. “Look! See!” she exclaimed. “Vincent Van Gogh!”

            My left hand was still resting on the doorframe, the blue part of the doorway in Vincent’s painting! I was looking at the very part of the Place du Forum Vincent painted in 1888. It wasn’t the same restaurant, of course, but the skyline was exactly the same.

            She then moved me about two steps away from the doorframe and pointed to a small smooth stone set among the cobblestones. On it, the inscription: Vincent Van Gogh stood on this exact spot when he painted the Café Terrace on the Place du Forum in 1888.

            I took a color photograph of the contemporary restaurant, careful to capture the skyline. Over the course of time, I’ve misplaced or lost the color slide. For those few moments, however, I was there in his time, standing where his feet had been. Being there was one of the most exciting travel moments I’ve ever experienced.

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