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Like most Van Gogh paintings, Ward in the Hospital at Arles is oil on canvas, in the Post-Impressionist style. However, it is quite different from many of the Dutch artist's other works. Van Gogh is better known for self-portraits, landscapes, and still life images of flowers.
Here, he shows the fever ward in the titular French hospital. Van Gogh was hospitalised in Arles twice, towards the end of his life. The artist had always struggled with his mental health, but it sharply declined in the year 1888. In December 1888, he cut off part of his own ear after an altercation with fellow artist Paul Gauguin. This led directly to his first spell in Arles, where he was diagnosed as suffering from mania and delirium.
In January 1889, Van Gogh left the hospital and returned to his home. However, his condition had not improved; in fact, it could be argued that it had got worse. He spent one month dividing his time between his home and the hospital. During this period, he suffered from severe hallucinations, believing that he was being poisoned. Finally, he returned to the hospital at Arles. This time, when he left, it was not to go home, but rather to an asylum.
Van Gogh painted three works showing the hospital at Arles: Ward in the Hospital in Arles, Garden of the Hospital in Arles, and Portrait of Doctor Félix Rey, who had treated him. Ward in the Hospital in Arles was finished in late 1889, some months after Van Gogh had left the hospital for the last time. As such, it represents the views of the artist looking back on his two periods of hospitalisation and recalling the way that he felt, from the vantage point offered by the passage of several months.
This painting features the blues, lilacs, and light browns that are common throughout many of Van Gogh's works. None of the figures are facing the artist, highlighting his sense of isolation. The corridor seems especially long, and the bold brush strokes that are common to many of Van Gogh's paintings are used here to create an eccentric sense of confinement and nervousness. The overall sensation that the painting transmits is one of anxiety, reflecting the way that Van Gogh felt during his time in the hospital.
When viewed alongside the more melancholy Garden of the Hospital in Arles, which uses a totally different colour palette, it creates a full picture of the alternating sensations that made up the artist's mood at the time. The Arles hospital which inspired the work is still standing today, and is now home to a number of Van Gogh's paintings, including several of his most renowned masterpieces. However, Ward in the Hospital in Arles is not among them. Instead, it forms part of the Oskar Reinhart Collection in Switzerland.