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Van Gogh’s Ghost

Chasing Vincent van Gogh in Paris and Provence – A Traveler’s Tale

by Ray Argyle

(A Work in Progress)

Van Gogh’s Ghost is a traveler’s tale of search and discovery. Ray Argyle tracks his pursuit of Vincent van Gogh to the sites where the great artist lived and worked, from his birthplace in Holland to Paris and through Provence, to the asylum where he painted Starry Night, and the village of his death in northern France. Deborah Windsor photographs the scenes they encounter, memorably recording the ateliers of Paris and the bistros and bullrings of Provence that van Gogh frequented in his incredible life on the edge.

Ray Argyle recasts the life of van Gogh as a quest for love and legacy, a bitter struggle to prove his worth while the art world denied him recognition, the sale of only one painting being recorded in his lifetime.

The search begins in Arles, the Provencal town to which van Gogh fled, saying he had “a thousand reasons” to get away from “the blasted foul wines of Paris.”

As familiar to the public as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent van Gogh remains as mysterious in death as he was in life. For all the books that have been written and the films that have been made about van Gogh, his spectre still lingers, not as a threat but as an enigma.

Ray and Deborah follow van Gogh’s journey from his birth in Zundert, Holland on March 30, 1853. It is a short but tortuous trail that runs from the sombre flatlands of his home country through Belgium and England, to Paris and sun-drenched Arles in the south of France. It ends in the cheap inn of a river village close to Paris where he dies, likely by his own hand, on July 29, 1890.

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They share their excitement as they stand on the soil where he set up his easel and drink of the lavender-scented air he inhaled. Somewhere along the trail of his life, they are convinced they will find evidence of a living legacy to connect the 21st century with the past – the ghost of Vincent van Gogh.

In this new appreciation of a great painter, Ray Argyle has written a travelog, that is also part art history, part memoir. He argues that Vincent van Gogh’s undoubted mental instability has become his most noted characteristic, yet is perhaps the least significant aspect of his make-up. Depicted in literature and film as a demented, driven creature of legend, Argyle sees van Gogh as both wildly impractical and at times a coolly calculated opportunist.

Is it possible, or fair, Argyle asks, to separate the artist from the man? As an artist, Vincent van Gogh was no primitif, but a craftsman who experimented with the most complex elements of painting – brushwork, composition, color, and form. His use of vivid colors applied with animated, almost anguished brushstrokes led to paintings the like of which the world had not seen before. As a man, he was irreverent, independent, and irascible in his words and in his actions. Was he also, Argyle wonders, an insufferable oaf, sponging off his brother, abusing his parents, and insulting his peers?

The author of The Paris Game, on how Charles de Gaulle saved France in war and civil turmoil, Ray has now dissected the life of the man who towered over French post-Impressionism, told from the unique vantage of years of travel to the many places where Vincent van Gogh left his indelible marks on history.

Image: Self-Portrait (for Paul Gauguin), Vincent Van Gogh, Arles, September, 1888. Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University.

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