Lately I have been noticing the large bearded irises blooming in my neighborhood as I take my morning walks with my dog Callie. Bearded irises are such a bold display of floral splendor! They are so large and the colors are vivid and rich. The flower form is quite distinct. My father-in-law John had a passion for bearded irises. He had them planted all over his yard. He had many different colors and varieties, which he purchased from a special bearded iris farm. He purchased his bulbs by mail order. I finally dug out a few of his bulbs from the garden this past fall and planted them in my garden. They did not bloom this spring, but I anticipate that they will next year. Irises give off one magnificent bloom a year, which will last about two weeks. I look forward to my bloom next year – which will most definitely bring me sweet memories of my sweet father-in-law.
I love how an old photo, a fragrance, or even a taste, can conjure up old memories that are so near and dear to your heart. Flowers have that power for me; some remind me of my loved ones. Sweet peas remind me of my grandmother. Roses remind me of my mother. Green apples remind me of my father. Plums remind me of my brother. And pink dianthus reminds me of myself as a young girl. But bearded irises also remind me of a very special moment in time when I had the amazing opportunity to travel with my two oldest and dearest friends, Vicki and Janan, to the south of France in 2010 for two weeks of total bliss.
We were staying in Arles for five days, which two of those days were spent with a tour guide who drove us around the countryside to show us the sights. Her name was Laurence and she made a recommendation along our journey to visit the pychiatric hospital that Vincent van Gogh had lived for one year after he had cut off his ear. It is called Saint-Paul Mausole Asylum, which is in the outskirts of Saint Remy de Provence. Today it is a historical location and museum to Vincent, as well as a psychiatric health institute that conducts art therapy and short stay rehabilitation for individuals with drug and alcohol dependency. It sounded a bit odd – but hey, when traveling with locals, do what they suggest. So we acquiesced and headed to the hospital.
As we walked down the front path leading us to the hospital, we immediately knew that this place was like no other hospital that we had ever been. Flowering trees canopied the path and the garden beds were brimming with blooming spring flowers. A large bronze statue of Vincent greeted us along the garden path. I loved how the artist had sculpted the statue in Vincent’s own painterly style. Vincent is holding his huge sunflowers that he loved to paint; my imagination ran wild! We noticed that there was many color plaques with Vincent’s paintings printed on them displayed around the grounds. When standing in front of a plaque, and looking up past it, there was the view that was captured in the painting! Haystacks, olive trees, and sunflowers! Unbelievable! Vincent had stood right where I was standing! There was so many of them too!
Vincent was a self-admitted patient at Saint-Paul Asylum where he lived from May 1889 to May 1890. Although Vincent’s mental illness was never cured, and he suffered debilitating seizures while at Saint-Paul’s, his time there was healing and cathartic. He was a prolific painter while at Saint-Paul’s, producing 150 paintings. I had the opportunity to visit Vincent’s bedroom and studio on the tour of the hospital. It was from his bedroom window that he painted the view, which is his famous painting, Wheat Fields.
Saint Paul’s was originally built in the 12th century as Augustine Monastery. In the 1800s it was converted into an asylum for the mentally ill. Vincent’s brother Theo arranged for Vincent to have two adjoining rooms, one for sleeping and one to be used as a studio. The windows in his two rooms had bars on them. Vincent was confined to the internal grounds during the beginning of his stay at Saint-Paul’s. During that time of confinement, Vincent spent many hours painting the view from out his bedroom and studio windows. Eventually, Vincent was allowed to leave the grounds and wonder outside with his easle to paint. Many of the paintings from this time of his life are without a doubt, some of the best and most famous paintings he has ever created. Such as Starry Night over the Rhone, The Irises, and Olive Trees, where all painted within walking distance from the hospital.
At the end of our tour we walked outside to the back of the monastery, where we were greeted with the most amazing site – a huge field of deep purple bearded irises! Vincent’s irises! It was jaw dropping! What was the chance that we would visit the monastery when the irises where at peak bloom?!
There were many plaques all around the field with Vincent’s numerous studies of the various angles of this location. I was just blown away. It is truly one of the most beautiful sites I have ever seen. It was humbling to be in the presence of this sacred space – Vincent’s space. Vincent – the sad and crazy genius that was plagued all his life by his demons. And who never knew in his lifetime the true gift he posessed and how beloved his work would someday be by the world. Such a sad story with a tragic ending. But it made me happy to know that I was here in his “happy place,” showing my respect to him, and paying homage to his life and accomplishments.
SAINT PAUL de MAUSOLE
Located by St. Remy de Provence
LAURENCE MINARD-AMALOU -Tour Guide