Some friends invite de Botton to a farmhouse in Provence, in the South of France. He admits that Provence is not appealing to him because he thinks it won’t suit him, although “sensible people” usually consider it exquisitely beautiful. He rents a car at the Marseilles airport, briefly gets lost at an oil refinery, and then decides to pull off the road before his destination to seek out beauty. He lets his eyes wander around the landscape, but cannot bring himself to see Provence’s beauty—it reminds him of southeastern England, and he misses certain important features, like the limestone hills and poppies growing beneath some trees. Yet, when he arrives at the farmhouse, he tells his hosts that Provence is “simply paradise.”
As in Madrid, de Botton begins his travels with pessimistically low expectations. He believes that Provence (unlike Amsterdam) has nothing to offer his temperament, and ponders its scenery in terms of the familiar image of southeast England. Although he tries to see it as beautiful, he is clearly not aesthetically attuned to Provence’s landscape in the way more enthusiastic observers seem to be, but in mentioning his inability to see the limestone and poppies, de Botton implies that he later does learn to see them—to view Provence through a new and more fruitful aesthetic lens.
People react instantaneously to the beauty of new places, so they might think that their aesthetic attractions are hardwired and inalterable. But de Botton disagrees, suggesting that a failure to see something as worth appreciating or an accidental negative association can lead us to find things unattractive, yet these preferences can be changed as people make way for new associations.
De Botton argues that outside factors, dependent on the observer and their preconceptions, often determine whether one finds a place beautiful—to an extent, people see what they expect to see, but deliberately cultivating an aesthetic can help people respond to the environment in a new way.
Studying art is one way of “enriching our sense of what to look for in a scene.” Works of art can lead a person to notice new features of the environment and change their sense of beauty, “like a person around whom a word has been mentioned on many occasions, but who only begins to hear it once he or she has learnt its meaning.”
Although people usually consider art a reflection of life, for de Botton, life can also reflect art, since exposure to art can help people develop the aesthetic sensibilities that lead them to see the world in novel ways.
In 1888, Vincent van Gogh came to Provence at age 34, early in his painting career, after he had failed to become a teacher or priest and spent two years living with his art dealer brother in Paris. He arrived in the town of Arles amidst heavy snow, moved into his hotel, and soon began painting at breakneck speed in what was “generally agreed to have been his greatest” period of work. He painted the city’s scenes through the seasons and, come summer, began to paint the harvest; he exclaimed that he wished he had discovered Arles a decade before.
Van Gogh’s circuitous path to Arles and frustration at his earlier career problems dovetail nicely with de Botton’s emphasis on pursuing psychological above material happiness: although he may have considered himself a failure, van Gogh became successful only once he found an environment that inspired him to create art. What de Botton does not mention here is that van Gogh committed suicide shortly after this period, at the age of 37, so his work in Provence was his last as well as his greatest.
Van Gogh’s professed motivations for moving to Arles were that he wanted to paint and help others “see” the South of France. Underlying this was his belief that artists could open others’ eyes to a part of the world they previously did not see, and this belief was based on his own experience reading French novelists and looking at the Spanish painter Velásquez’s delicate attention to light and use of grey. Indeed, van Gogh noticed “something utterly Velázquezian” about the grey walls in Arles’s small restaurants, which often closed their shutters during the day. Each great painter, for van Gogh, illuminated aspects of the world through their distinctive style and attention to detail.
Van Gogh is an excellent example of how art can influence people’s understanding of their ultimate purpose and lead them to in turn create art out of their own lives. Van Gogh’s underlying belief about what art could teach people led him to flout representational conventions and, as a result, secure an influential place in the history of Western art. Here, others’ art inspired van Gogh’s travel and his travel inspired his own art. Art and travel offer similar aesthetic experiences that can reinforce one another, and for de Botton the human search for purpose is similarly aesthetic.
But van Gogh also thought that previous artists “completely missed the essentials” in Southern France: Arles’s “middle-aged middle-class women” and farm workers had never appeared in over a century of Provençal painting, all of which followed “the classical and until then relatively undisputed notion that their task was to render on canvas an accurate version of the visual world.” But van Gogh thought they all failed to truly capture the visual reality of Provence.
Much as the Duc des Esseintes imagined Holland to be defined by particular images that he was ultimately frustrated to find in a sea of ordinary ones, van Gogh had a distinct and unusual concept of what truly defined the essence of Provence. However, whereas the Duc des Esseintes gave up on reality and withdrew into his imagination, van Gogh decided to change the way others perceived reality by painting his own view of it.
This is because different artists can realistically depict the same place or scene in different ways—each artist must choose which features to highlight and disregard, for no painting can capture the entirety of reality, as Nietzsche knew all too well: “‘Completely true to nature’—what a lie: / How could nature ever be constrained into a picture? / The smallest bit of nature is infinite!”
Again, de Botton sees the ability to shift perspectives as a crucial tool for humans. Nietzsche’s declaration that “the smallest bit of nature is infinite!” recalls how de Botton digs into particular details and uncovers deep meanings, as when he fell in love with a front door in Amsterdam.
Someone who appreciates an artist’s work therefore merely agrees that the artist has chosen to paint a scene’s most important elements. Sometimes these artistic choices are so powerful that “they come to define a place” for future observers. If one complains about a portrait, they are saying that the painter has focused on the wrong elements; “bad art,” de Botton argues, “might thus be defined as a series of bad choices about what to show and what to leave out.”
De Botton turns judgments of beauty from absolute statements about the worthiness of art into subjective statements about the relationship between the observer and the art object. He argued in the first essay that memory, imagination, and anticipation—like art—function by selectively emphasizing and erasing particular elements to create an emotionally charged image, which attests to the shared aesthetic basis of all four.
In the farmhouse, de Botton reads a book on van Gogh because he cannot fall asleep and then, the next morning, anxiously eats three pains au chocolat after learning that his hosts have already awakened and left home. He notices two cypress trees in the garden and thinks back to van Gogh’s sketches of cypresses from his time in Arles. In particular, van Gogh noticed that their unusual proportions led them to dance in the wind, as de Botton puts it, like “a flame flickering nervously in the wind.”
De Botton immediately begins to notice elements of the environment that would never have stood out the day before: he only learns to pay attention to the cypress trees because of van Gogh’s sketches of and writings about them. Clearly, van Gogh’s art can translate not only a landscape but also an entire way of seeing for his audience.
Similarly, although he had dismissed Provence’s olive trees as uninteresting the previous day, now de Botton notices the “ferocity” of their branches and the “alertness and contained energy” of their leaves. He also sees the unique colors of Provence, which stem from special climactic features that leave the skies cloudless and the vegetation lush. Van Gogh picked up on Provence’s rich primary colors, but earlier painters did not, so he broke with tradition by maximizing their contrast. De Botton learns to see this too, and not only the bright colors of the day but also the “profusion of colors” that van Gogh noticed in Provence’s night sky.
Like he did in the Lake District, here de Botton achieves receptivity to the natural environment in paying close attention to visual details he might ordinarily skim over; the connection between van Gogh’s art and Provence’s particular climate shows how the forces of nature deeply influence aesthetic standards and movements, just as they did for Wordsworth. By emphasizing color, van Gogh articulated his belief about what made Provence beautiful through his art.
Arles’s tourist office is unassuming and conventional, offering the usual maps and pamphlets, but it emphasizes van Gogh and especially the “van Gogh trail” built 100 years after the painter’s death, which memorializes the places he painted with plaques around the region. When de Botton brings his hosts to the trail, they happen upon a guided tour of it, led by a Sorbonne graduate student studying van Gogh.
Van Gogh’s influence on the way people see Provence has been inscribed into the region’s landscape: people can now travel to where the art that made them travel in the first place was inspired. As de Botton returns to the role of tourist, the reader is left to wonder whether the “van Gogh trail” will let visitors pursue their own curiosity or simply shove facts down their throats, like de Botton’s Madrid guidebook.
According to the tour guide, in May 1888, three months after he arrived in Arles, van Gogh moved from his hotel to a building called the “Yellow House” and insisted that the interior be painted in Provence’s bright primary colors, “with everything from the chairs to the pictures having character.” Unfortunately, the house was destroyed during World War II.
Van Gogh wanted his house to reflect the beauty he saw in Provence, as though he wanted to completely surround himself with the region’s exotic colors and make himself part of the environment. Like Gustave Flaubert in Egypt, van Gogh tried to assimilate into the place he came to love.
Next, the tour goes to fields where van Gogh used to paint, and the group compares the scenery to his work. One Australian woman declares, “well, it doesn’t much look like that.” De Botton notes that van Gogh faced similar criticism during his lifetime, for he sacrificed features like proportion and shadow for the sake of color.
The Australian woman seems to represent both the classical notion of artistic representation and the unreflective tourist who does not want to try on other perspectives: she has little interest in seeing the region as van Gogh did, but rather wonders why van Gogh did not see it like she does.
De Botton sees this as a justifiable artistic choice, however, for—as Nietzsche said in the earlier quote from this chapter—art can never capture the entirety of reality. For van Gogh, capturing the salient part of reality actually meant distorting and omitting other parts of it. De Botton states that “he was willing to sacrifice a naïve realism in order to achieve realism of a deeper sort,” and compares the difference between van Gogh and traditional realists to that between poets and journalists writing about the same phenomenon.
Van Gogh’s alternative form of realism, which emphasizes the way that people experience a place like Provence by exaggerating its most distinctive features, echoes the historical shift toward a psychological concept of beauty that de Botton summarized in the last chapter, which occurred after critics started writing about the sublime and insisting that the personal effect of a landscape was more important than its physical appearance.
Indeed, as van Gogh wrote to his brother, he decided to “use colour more arbitrarily, in order to express myself forcibly.” While some saw paintings like his Poet and The Night Café in Arles as “caricatures,” van Gogh was simply trying to express truths about the places he went in ways that traditional standards of artistic representation could not have accommodated.
In the expanded role he saw for art, van Gogh empowered artists to depict a much wider range of truths than merely the images that first meet the eye. De Botton conceives his perspective-widening mission in this book similarly, for he seeks to help travelers pursue their personal truths in foreign places rather than settle for the official version in the guidebook.
While de Botton, like most of the people on the walk, finds himself newly enthusiastic about van Gogh and Provence’s landscape, he also thinks of a distressing quote from Pascal: “how vain painting is, exciting admiration by its resemblance to things of which we do not admire the originals.” De Botton thinks that, although van Gogh’s painting did excite him, Pascal forgets two things. First, painters do more than simply reproduce objects visually, but rather foreground certain features of reality. Secondly, “our capacity to appreciate can be transferred from art to the world,” so in admiring paintings people do not necessarily fail to admire the world. De Botton has also visited other places, like German industrial areas and English shopping malls, after seeing art that featured them. Indeed, art’s potential to inspire travel is a longstanding cornerstone of the tourism industry.
Although de Botton ends up disagreeing with Pascal’s quote, the notion that people admire resemblances but ignore reality foreshadows John Ruskin’s arguments against photography, which de Botton summarizes in the next chapter. De Botton responds to Pascal by reminding the reader that art and real life are in a constant dialogue—art influences what people observe but the way people observe also informs art, which is why art and travel can be mutually enriching. Art can teach receptivity, which can lead people to try on other perspectives and even produce more art, just as van Gogh learned from other painters how to depict a place in a new, eye-opening way.
Until the late 18th century, British people seldom appreciated the countryside—when they traveled they went abroad (and especially to Italy, in large part because of poetry and painting about Rome and Naples). But as British poets and painters began turning their focus to the British landscape, people began to flood into the countryside. While art cannot generate interest out of nothing, it nevertheless can inspire and guide tourists in their quests for beauty.
De Botton implicitly references Wordsworth’s immense influence on early tourism to the British countryside, again emphasizing how art can translate other perspectives to its viewers and then lead those viewers to go take in the new perspectives for themselves by traveling.