Sunday, November 29, 2009

Travel as Pilgrimage

The fall semester is winding down. That means a whole lot of grading, plotting syllabi for next semester, planning projects for Christmas break, and in my case, thinking ahead to summer travels. About this time every year, the road starts to call, and the wanderlust kicks in. I look at maps and think, where do I want to go this summer? What destination is whispering to me? My last three trips abroad have all featured Paris, and one of them (in 2007) included the Netherlands and van Gogh research trip for "Sunflowers." But where to next? Ma sì, ho già deciso...andiamo!

I believe in meaningful travel. I don't choose my voyages on a whim; often there's a project linked to a trip, but not always, sometimes it's about where I am in my life and thinking, and where my footsteps are leading me. For me, travel is a pilgrimage. I become a seeker of ideas as well as things, I open myself to new experiences and people, I plan my way but also allow for the wind to blow as it will. And I've been rewarded: sure, not every destination has yielded sublime moments, but many have. Some have brought outright inspiration -- as I keep saying, I never would have written "Sunflowers" if I hadn't gone to Auvers-sur-Oise that May day in 2006. It's just a fact. That place and that day spoke to me.

How to make travel meaningful? Once I choose my destination, the planning begins. I don't mean a rigid itinerary on a clipboard that tracks every minute of the journey; I mean mental preparation. This can include brushing up on language skills -- I'm already wandering the apartment reciting Italian verb conjugations -- reading up on the art and history of where I'm going, listening to music related to the place, reading novels set in the place. And studying maps. I *love* maps. The Streetwise series of maps is my favorite; they're easy to use and discreet, so you can peek at them without holding a big I'M A LOST FOREIGNER sign. I like to feel familiar enough with the city in question so that on arrival day, I'm ready to jump right into things without wasting a second. Other advance planning includes creating a small notebook with lists of opening hours for places I want to see, timetables for trains and buses if I need them, as much practical information as I can get in advance (nowadays, so easy with the internet). I choose my accommodations as far out as I can; I might note some good restaurant recommendations, but with restaurants I prefer to choose what looks good when I'm actually there.

During the trip, I see what I'm in the mood for on a particular day. I may wake up in a museum mood, or on a beautiful morning, I may want a day that has a lot of walking outside. Do I journal? I try. Every trip, I try. With the best of intentions, I leave plenty of blank pages in my trip notebook, but it seldom happens. I find myself mute at the very moments I'd like to have words of wit and wisdom to record. Nothing I say seems to really capture what I'm feeling and seeing. It's ironic, I know that, but I guess I'm just not a journaling kind of person.

I do keep relics of my pilgrimages. Ticket stubs, restaurant receipts, funny this-and-that often dumb things that nonetheless have the power to conjure up a time and place. Just the other day, I reached into the pocket of a jacket I hadn't worn since May to find a used Paris Metro ticket. It made me smile. To give another example, in one of my 'reliquaries' -- boxes wherein reside the relics of many journeys -- lies a pair of sunglasses held together by a safety pin. I dropped and broke those sunglasses in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence in October 1996, while trying to shift a cone of the best gelato I've ever tasted from hand to hand. I only have to pick up the glasses to remember the magic of seeing the Piazza for the first time. From the van Gogh trip in 2007, of course, I've got any number of postcards, brochures, and photographs. I've even got sugar cubes in a Musée d'Orsay wrapper -- I remember when I stashed them and how I felt that afternoon, giddy with too much caffeine and too many fabulous paintings.

Ah yes, the road is calling. Will I drop my sunglasses in the Piazza della Signoria this summer too? What relics and ideas and inspirations will I bring home this time?

For good reading on meaningful travel, I recommend Phil Cousineau's "The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker's Guide to Making Travel Sacred" and Joseph Dispenza, "The Way of the Traveler: Making Every Trip a Journey of Self-Discovery," both available on Amazon.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Meet Monsieur Roulin

One of Vincent's closest friends in Arles -- and a critical character in "Sunflowers" -- was Joseph-Etienne Roulin, an entreposeur des postes (postal agent) who worked at the railway station. We first learn of Monsieur Roulin in a letter to Theo from the end of July, when Vincent enthusiastically describes the subject for a new painting (the painting seen here, click to enlarge). We're not sure when the two men actually met, but the place was likely the Café de la Gare, where Vincent was living at the time. Both men were habitués of the café, Roulin living only a short distance from Vincent; van Gogh would later say that Roulin accepted drinks as payment for modeling. Over time Roulin would be the subject of several paintings and drawings by Vincent (so would all the members of his family), but this first painting remains my personal favorite. Today in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the canvas shows Roulin proud in his uniform, cozied up to a table as if ready for a mug of beer. Roulin posed a bit stiffly for it, Vincent would complain to Theo, but still, the face shows the calmness and wisdom that would serve Vincent well in the months to come.

We know from surviving letters -- Vincent's letters and those of Roulin himself -- that Roulin and his wife remained supportive of Vincent throughout his time in Arles. According to the memoirs of Johanna van Gogh-Bonger (Theo's wife), Roulin was in the brothel the night of 23 December 1888, when Vincent appeared with the piece of his ear, and helped Vincent out of there. While Vincent was in hospital during that first breakdown, Roulin and his wife Augustine both went to see him; Roulin in turn sent letters to Theo and Vincent's sister Willemien updating them on his condition. It was Roulin who apparently met with the head of the Arles hospital and persuaded him to release Vincent, when debate was being held about committing Vincent to an asylum. Even after Joseph Roulin was transferred to Marseille in January 1889 (one of the few chronological changes I made in "Sunflowers" was keeping him in Arles until August 1889), he still kept contact with Vincent. The rest of the Roulin family remained in Arles until October 1889, when Monsieur Roulin was able to move them to Marseille, and they too seem to have kept contact until Vincent left for Saint-Rémy in May 1889. Conspicuously absent from the signed petition of March 1889 -- in which many of the Arles townspeople tried to have Vincent forcibly committed -- are any names from la famille Roulin. In his letters, Vincent speaks of the Roulins as a model family, praising Joseph Roulin in particular for his wisdom, his politics (he was an "ardent republican," according to Vincent), and his fatherhood. "A good soul," Vincent calls him, and elsewhere says Roulin as an artistic subject is "in the manner of Daumier."

One of the treats of the Van Gogh Museum's new translations of Vincent's correspondence is the publication in English for the first time of more Roulin letters: four letters sent to Vincent by Joseph Roulin while the former was in the asylum at Saint-Rémy and the latter was in Marseille. These letters not only reveal that Vincent maintained correspondence with his friend during this time (unfortunately Vincent's letters to Roulin do not survive), but also the depth of their friendship. "Monsieur Vincent," Roulin calls van Gogh with respect, his words leaving no doubt of his high regard for the painter. We learn from these four letters that Vincent must have had good relations with Roulin's children, for Roulin gives newsy accounts of their activities, especially the then-toddler Marcelle. Roulin's notes to Vincent are reassuring, telling him that he is in beautiful country at Saint-Rémy, encouraging him to paint. Indeed, these letters suggest that Roulin and Vincent talked about painting quite a bit. Vincent certainly gave the Roulins paintings; Roulin talks about the portraits Vincent had given them and the pleasure the pictures give his family.

In the last letter surviving from Roulin to Vincent, dating from late October 1889, Roulin says, "let us hope that one day again we shall have the happiness to shake hands and to tell each other in person such good things and to cement our friendship once more; I am confident and am full of hope to see you again one day." Unfortunately for the two friends, it never happened.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


I feel kinda silly: the auction I posted about yesterday and said was tonight -- was actually last night. Chalk it up to my frequent habit of having no idea what the date is on a particular day!

At any rate, Vincent's Weaver, up for auction at Christie's New York, did sell above estimate, at a final price of $818,500 (including the buyer's premium). As Allie the Hist-fic Chick pointed out in a comment to yesterday's post, that was a lowish estimate (and it turns out, a lowish final price), but that can be explained by the economic times. All the estimates seemed conservative to me. Also, one of the Dutch-era weaver paintings was not going to fetch as much as a van Gogh Dutch-era landscape picture, and no Dutch-era paintings would fetch as much as the post-Paris canvases (from Arles, Saint-Remy, or Auvers-sur-Oise). There's definitely a 'market hierarchy' when it comes to van Gogh's work.

I hope the Weaver's new owner enjoys the 'good deal' they got. ;-)

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Up for Auction

The art market must be trying to rebound, because a van Gogh painting is up for auction this week in New York. In November 2007, van Gogh's "Fields" (from the Auvers period) shockingly failed to sell at auction, leading the pundits to proclaim the art market in recession. Since then, the auction houses of the world have kept Vincent on the back burner aside from the occasional minor work.

Tomorrow night (3 November) Christie's is including one of Vincent's 1884 weaver paintings in the evening Modern & Impressionist art sale: this one (F162). The estimate stands at $400,000-600,000, which is fairly standard for one of the Dutch-era pictures. (The later Arles/Saint-Remy/Auvers canvases command much more.) This painting, along with the other weavers in the series, was made just after Vincent left Drenthe (before that he was in The Hague) and settled in Nuenen with his parents. Van Gogh was fascinated by the village weavers and their machinery, completing a whole series of paintings and drawings during his first months in Nuenen.

If the van Gogh doesn't sell, what will the pundits say? I'll be watching! Go here for the write-up in the Christie's online catalogue.

Traipsing through the Blogosphere

Last night I took part in a live internet-radio interview, courtesy of and It was fun! Readers phoned or emailed terrific questions -- very insightful questions that I was happy to tackle. What do I really think about Dr. Gachet? Did I "know" the ending of the book when I started writing? What sort of research did I do to craft the character of Rachel? Thank you to all those who submitted questions and/or listened to the show. If you haven't heard the interview and would like to listen (warning: there might be a spoiler or two), tune in here!

Elsewhere in the blogosphere -- lately I've been doing a lot of 'traveling' -- Sarah over at Reading the Past is hosting a guest-post today on "Van Gogh, Reader of Novels." Did you know Vincent was a fan of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Charlotte Bronte? My post explores Vincent as avid reader of novels.