Situated on the banks of the Rhone the provençal city of Arles has captivated the hearts of the Celts, Roman emperors and artists alike. Van Gogh and Picasso were smitten with the city. Here we explore what makes this city so special - its rich history, cultural insitutions and vibrant contemporary art scene.
Vincent Van Gogh, L'Arlésienne: Madame Joseph-Michel Ginoux (Marie Julien, 1848–1911), oil on canvas, 1888–89, 36 × 29 in. (91.4 × 73.7 cm), Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.
Within view of the city’s 4th-century Roman obelisk, under the extraordinary ashlar entrance vault of the 17th-century hôtel de ville—a marvel of stereotomy, spanning 50 feet without intermediary supports, yet so shallow it appears almost flat—there is an inscription, in Occitan, by the Provençal poet Frédéric Mistral (1830–1914):
For this ancient settlement, a Celtic oppidum before it became, towards 500 BCE, a Greek outpost, first rose to glory in the 40s BCE when Julius Caesar, in gratitude for Arles’s support against Marseille (which sided with Pompey), made it into a major Roman colony. Prosperity soon followed, thanks both to local agriculture and international trade—goods traveled from the Mediterranean all the way to Switzerland up and down the mighty Rhône—, and would remain in Arles for centuries: the Christian Emperor Constantine nearly made the city his imperial seat and, by medieval times, it had become capital of the “kingdom” (in reality a powerful earldom) of Provence. As for liberty, Mistral presumably had in mind the short-lived Republic of Arles (1180–1251), established when the city’s oligarchs exploited a power vacuum to establish self-government. In 1481, however, Provence, and with it Arles, was ceded to the kingdom of France, whose monarchs happily taxed the city’s wealth throughout the ancien régime. But the coming of the railways, in the 1840s, would sap Arles’s role as a center of trade—the iron horse was so much faster than any river barge—and bring a new, working-class population who sought employment at the huge rolling-stock workshop built on the city’s outskirts. So important was the railroad depot to the local economy—in 1900 it employed 1,800 people in a population of just 30,000 souls—that its closure in the 1980s left Arles with a median revenue that is still 40% lower than the national average. Today, the city’s principal employer is tourism: a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1981, for its rich and impressive ensemble of Roman and Romanesque monuments, Arles is also home to one of the world’s most important photography festivals—the Rencontres d’Arles, founded in 1969—and a new major cultural foundation, LUMA, established on the site of the abandoned railroad yard by Swiss billionairess Maja Hoffmann in 2008.
Perhaps no one did more to mythologize his native Provence than Frédéric Mistral. When, in the 1850s, he began writing his epic Occitan poetry, seeking to revive the noble literary tradition of the Provençal troubadours, the language was under threat from the centralizing forces of French universalism (the national government would unleash its ultimate regional-language death machine in the 1880s—compulsory state education in French). But rather than a truly militant campaign to keep Occitan alive, his work was ultimately an exercise in nostalgia, a sentiment that pervades his other great legacy, the Museon Arlaten in Arles. Founded in 1896, the Arlaten—which, thanks to the money from Mistral’s 1904 Nobel Prize, reopened in 1909 in the splendid Hôtel Laval-Castellane (a sprawling 15th-century mansion that was partly rebuilt in the 17th and 18th centuries after it became a Jesuit college)—started out as a museum of Provençal ethnography, a record of the rural customs and traditions that were fast dying out in the rapidly industrializing region. Mistral put together “typical” scenes of Provençal life, with waxworks and locally crafted furniture, as well as collecting countless ethnographic objects, from clothing to agricultural equipment to “Carmelite cells”—beautiful glass-fronted boxes in which nuns created miniature scenes of convent life. Reopened just this year, after a decade of remodeling work (including a rather brash new stairway decorated by Arles native Christian Lacroix), the Museon has preserved Mistral’s legacy but has also become a museum of museology, questioning the curatorial motives of its early years, as well updating the story told by documenting the deindustrialization of the late 20th century.
Admiring the classic coiffes arlésiennes and other accouterments of female dress in the Museon Arlaten, one can’t help think of Vincent van Gogh’s famous portraits of Madame Ginoux, who ran the station café. Though he spent only 15 months in Arles, from February 1888 to May 1889, the Dutch artist is now indelibly associated with the city, for his astonishingly fertile sojourn there (200 paintings, countless drawings and watercolors) would change the course of Western art (e.g. Portrait with a Bandaged Ear). To honor his Arlésien legacy, the Fondation Van Gogh, which opened in 2014 in a converted 15th-century mansion, organizes exhibitions around his work that set it in dialogue with contemporary artistic production. Moreover, van Gogh’s connection with Arles would lead another hugely important artist to visit the city regularly throughout his long life: Pablo Picasso. In imitation of van Gogh, he too would paint portrait series of Arlésiennes—the first in 1912, the last in 1958—as well as attending bullfights at the city’s amphitheater. Picasso’s connection with Arles was institutionalized, in 1971, by the gift of 57 works he made to the city’s fine-arts museum, the evocative Musée Réattu, which is housed in the former Grand Priory of the Order of Malta (15th–17th centuries) on the banks of the Rhône. Van Gogh described the museum as “a horror and a humbug,” but don’t let that put you off: it was only inevitable that he would have disapproved of the work of the museum’s founder, the history painter Jacques Réattu (1760–1833), whose home this was and whose lively Neoclassical canvases make up a significant part of the collection (which, in addition to Picasso, includes everything from Simon Vouet, Louis XIII’s premier peintre, to Ossip Zadkine, the Cubist sculptor).
As a native Arlésien, Réattu was steeped in remnants of the antique culture that informed so much history painting of the Revolutionary and Empire periods. Three years before his death, in 1830, Arles’s amphitheater was cleared of the 212 houses that had been built upon it, but he did not live to see the reemergence of the Roman theater, which was excavated in 1833–1908. Indeed, wherever you dig in the city, chances are you’ll unearth an antique artifact, and there is of course a museum where they are studied and conserved. Located by the Rhône beyond the city walls, where the Roman hippodrome once stood, the unapologetically Modernist Musée Départemental Arles Antique (architect Henri Ciriani, 1983–95) may appear a little forbidding—Le Corbusier meets out-of-town hypermarket—but don’t let that deter you. Its calm interiors provide an ideally neutral backdrop for viewing all sorts of treasures, such as the probable (and very early) bust of Caesar, dug up from the mud of the Rhône in 2007, as well as a perfectly preserved Roman barge, also found in the river’s silt, which was hoisted to the surface in 2011 and is now displayed in an extension built specially to house it.
No trip to Arles today would be complete without visiting the latest architectural addition to the city, the $175 million LUMA Foundation, which in June 2021 inaugurated its new and garishly spectacular Frank Gehry-designed tower. Clad in 11,500 stainless-steel “pixels,” it winks and twinkles in shades of pink and peach as the sun goes down, leading its architect to compare it to van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhône, painted in Arles in 1888. Rather more subtle are the former railroad workshops, sensitively converted to gallery space by Selldorf Architects, and the new public park surrounding the complex, a brilliant recreation of local habitats by Belgian landscape designer Bas Smets that has turned a literal semi-desert into an oasis of greenery. Hoffmann, LUMA’s pharmaceutical-heiress founder, is a controversial figure in Arles—omnipresent, she sits on the boards of both the Rencontres and the Fondation Van Gogh and, in addition to the 16-acre railroad depot, her foundation owns hotels and other buildings in the historic center—, but she and the communist former mayor, Hervé Schiavetti (2001–20), who rolled out the red carpet for her, have between them sealed the city’s fate: tourism, culture, and very probable gentrification.