Vincent Van Gogh

Inside the Art Therapy Program at the French Hospital Where Van Gogh Once Resided

The French monastery where Vincent Van Gogh made many of his masterpieces when he warded for psychiatric treatment is still operating—and now treats its exclusively female clients with art therapy. The works they create onsite are showcased in an annual exhibition, hosted in partnership with the School of the Visual Arts (SVA) in New York, which continues to draw thousands of visitors each year.

The Monastery Saint-Paul de Mausole in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence has stood for a millennium. By the time Van Gogh voluntarily entered the facility in May 1889, it had already long served as an asylum for people deemed “insane.” The artist elected to stay at Saint-Paul de Mausole after experiencing several mental health crises, including the infamous incident in which he cut off part of his ear. He was accompanied to the hospital by Reverend Frédéric Salles, a Protestant clergyman from the nearby town of Arles.

A historical building with stone walls and light blue shutters, partially obscured by lush greenery in the foreground, creating a serene and picturesque setting.

A building at the Monastery Saint-Paul de Mausole in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France. Photo: Adam Schrader.

Theo Van Gogh, the artist’s brother, was crucial to his ability to paint during this time. While staff were supportive of the artist and allowed him to paint as part of his treatment, providing him with a studio space on the hospital grounds, Theo financed his materials and regularly sent him supplies during his yearlong stay.

Jean-Marc Boulon, a psychiatrist and the current medical director of Saint-Paul de Mausole, wrote in a document provided to visitors that Van Gogh was “fascinated by the quality of the light and the beauty of the countryside” and felt encouraged by the medical staff. He ultimately produced more than 100 drawings and 150 paintings before checking out in May 1890, but died from a gunshot wound two months after his release.

A picturesque scene of a lush garden with flowering shrubs, with a large framed painting depicting a rural landscape hanging on an old, weathered stone wall beneath blue shuttered windows at the Monastery Saint-Paul de Mausole.

A print of a work by Vincent Van Gogh hanging in a garden at the Monastery Saint-Paul de Mausole in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France. Photo: Adam Schrader.

The hospital’s art center is operated by the Valetudo Association, which promotes hospital’s cultural development and medical research. While still serving as a treatment facility for clients, the site’s monastery is open to the public. It encompasses a reconstruction of what the room Van Gogh stayed in may have looked like (the actual room he once occupied is part of facilities still functioning as a hospital). The cloisters serve as a gallery to exhibit work made by clients of the hospital and students at SVA.

A painter's easel displaying a vibrant landscape painting, with a paint-stained smock draped over it, set against a backdrop of a rustic room with peeling green paint and a single, simple bed covered by a white sheet.

A reconstruction of Vincent Van Gogh’s bedroom at the Monastery Saint-Paul de Mausole in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France. Photo: Adam Schrader.

Saint-Paul’s collaborative work with SVA began in 2010, when Boulon was introduced to the school’s administration and its art therapy department. Impressed by the psychiatrist’s art therapy methods, the school’s then-galleries director, Francis DiTommaso, invited the hospital’s clients to exhibit their work on SVA’s New York campus—a show that was such a success that SVA students were, in turn, asked to exhibit at the monastery’s cloister. This exchange has since been an annual affair.

Each exhibition leads with a theme (there was only one year when the show was thematically tied to Van Gogh, despite the hospital’s history with the artist), with 26 slots for works from each institution. They are hung across from each other, though are not necessarily in conversation with each other.

A textured, expressionistic painting of a man's face, prominently displayed on a green wall with visible signs of wear and peeling. The artwork features bold, chaotic brush strokes in earthy tones surrounding the more detailed, somber face.

A portrait of Vincent Van Gogh at Monastery Saint-Paul de Mausole created by the hospital’s chief psychiatrist, Jean-Marc Boulon. Photo: Adam Schrader.

“They have their own reasons for putting whatever they put up, but it’s supposed to theoretically match the theme of the year,” DiTommaso said of the patients’ artworks. “Many have done interpretations of Van Gogh pieces. And you frequently see Van Gogh inflected. They live there. You know, he’s the main man. So, absolutely, he’s a point of reference.”

The art put on display must all fit equal and precise dimensions—50 by 65 centimeters—established by Boulon, said DiTommaso, who praised the “parity” of it. The works are also printed copies and not the originals to prevent them from being damaged in shipping and so they could be easily reprinted in France. Some works are up for sale through the hospital’s gift shop.

A man observes framed artworks displayed on an ancient stone wall inside a gallery. Three paintings are hung at eye level, and one is positioned on the floor against the wall. The visible artworks feature vibrant, somewhat abstract subjects, including a colorful bird and a figure, set against darker backgrounds, drawing attention to their details and colors.

Works hung on the walls of the Monastery Saint-Paul de Mausole in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France, as part of a joint exhibition between the hospital’s clients and students at the School of the Visual Arts. Photo courtesy of SVA

Gabriella Lincoln, an SVA graduate working as an artist in France, exhibited at Saint-Paul as a student one year and has since shot photographs of the shows. The edition she participated in saw a unique dialogue between the two groups of artists: the facility’s clients were asked to create works inspired by the students’ pieces.

“We never communicated with them. If I’m not wrong, I think it was just to avoid any of them to be disturbed or anything,” she said. “I liked that idea that there was no interaction because it was like, ‘How can you highlight my work from not knowing me or understanding the piece of work?’”

Lincoln added that the paintings are “really beautiful,” as is the location of the hospital. “There’s definitely a big participation from SVA. And they are very sweet and empathetic about it,” she said.

An outdoor photograph exhibited in a lush garden scene framed within an ancient, columned arcade. In the foreground, a variety of potted plants and verdant foliage complement the stone architecture, emphasizing the blend of nature and historical elements. The picture itself shows a densely vegetated garden with a decorative, ornate structure, and is mounted on an aged stone wall, adding a layer of depth and intrigue to the overall scene.

Installation view of an exhibition of work by students at the School of Visual Arts is seen at the Monastery Saint-Paul de Mausole in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France. Photo courtesy of Gabriella Lincoln.

Carol Fabricatore, an SVA graduate and current faculty member, said she felt “honored” to be one of the selected artists from the school to exhibit in 2019, 2022, and 2023. She said she is personally influenced by Van Gogh’s drawings with ink and reed pens.

“What a unique and incredible place filled with so much history. Being selected to display my pieces and represent SVA in such a storied venue was both exhilarating and deeply humbling,” Fabricatore said in an email. “Regrettably, my teaching commitments kept me from attending the openings, but knowing my work inhabited the same space where Vincent van Gogh once sought solace was incredibly moving.”

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