Painting Les Alyschamps
Yesterday, my first full day in Arles, I went to paint one of Vincent Van Gogh’s scenes, Les Alyscamps.
Les Alyscamps is a 1,500 year old Roman avenue that is lined with sarcophagi of well to do people of the town. Arles was once a major city of the Roman Empire. The gladiator arena was later used for bull fights and is now a concert venue. The entire city is built atop the 2,000 year old foundations of this ancient town which seems to be a common theme in Europe. Back in olden days, burying people inside the city was a taboo so it was common for the Romans to line the road entering the city with monuments of their fallen. Today these stone coffins are still there and poplar trees line the street. I’ve decided to paint as many of the scenes Van Gogh once painted and I thought this a good place to start.
Walking through the entry with my drawing board and easel it was unclear whether painting was allowed in this site. The lady at the voucher booth was so happy to see me and gave me a free ticket. So far, I have not been denied setting up shop which is an encouraging thought for the rest of the trip.
Naturally I tried to find the exact spot where Vincent set up to paint. I discovered that spot above the path is now covered in tight trees and after hopelessly bushwhacking through the brush looking for the view I decided it wasn’t going to happen. He painted here over 100 years ago so it is excusable for the landscape to have changed. The opposite side had a similar view so I settled with that.
The benefit of painting quickly en plein air is that the amount of time for people to be disappointed by your barely covered canvas is much less. The key is to lay many colors out, look at the scene in its entirety, and go! Cezanne said the minute you start thinking your painting is dead. The impossible task of not thinking however can be possible if you work hard and fast enough. 20 minutes in the trees were blue, the sarcophagi were in and the canvas was mostly covered. Don’t step away, keep going.
The visitors began to pour in around 10am. The scene was underway by then so I welcomed people to view my progress. To hear “Ou lala!” is a major confidence boost. People did the sneak around behind me and look back move which always makes me laugh. Come hang out! I don’t care. Yet an encounter later in the morning changed my perspective on that last statement.
A Kiwi couple came up to “hang out” and talk to me. They asked the standard questions: where are you from, what gives you your inspiration, etc. The silent husband jumped in at the last question and started getting biblical. Apparently my inspiration was in fact Jesus and all other religions were meaningless. “God has given you this gift and you paint his spirit coming out of the rocks and trees.” Me: “Maybe, I don’t know! Back off you Christian bullies! My paint is drying!” This was an internal monologue and I just kept nodding my head and saying “yeah, totally.” After about 30 minutes we were holding hands in a circle with our heads bowed while this long winded guy said an endless prayer chanting Hebrew while the wife kept muttering “hail our lord God, oh yeah! Hail you Jesus.” 5 minutes later I was allowed to look up and realized all the other tourists looking at us confused and weirded out, as I also was. “Oooook bye!” I’ve got no problem with Christianity but I do have a problem with missionaries. I should’ve just said I’m satanic right off the bat but that probably would’ve backfired too. In a state of “what the hell was that” I jumped back into the painting.
The painting was done, yet I kept painting 10 minutes too long to try and perfect it. The joy of finishing a painting was increased when a large French elementary school group walked by and a little boy came up and asked me if he could take a photo. I couldn’t understand him at first so I freaked out and said “Je parle anglais” (I speak English). I meant to say “Pardon? My French is poor. Parlez vous anglais?” Anyways it made me happy because he called me Monsieur and thought I was French! I’ve clearly been an American so far because my shorts are too long and I smile at passers by, but at this moment I was one of them.
Walking back through town for dejeuner, shop keepers and diners snuck peeps at my painting. I was knocked off of my cloud when I asked my server if they were open and he snootily replied “obviously.” Oh well. Small steps.