Why do we feel attracted to some places and not others? Why— for example— do we find Las Vegas repulsive but adore San Francisco? British philosopher Alain de Botton would assert San Francisco has more allure because it has been romanticized in everything from Beat poetry to hard-boiled detective novels. The scorching desert sun and whir of slot machines on the strip don’t possess the same charm because Las Vegas hasn’t been glamorized in as many art forms. A place is only appealing— de Botton would say— if it has been rendered in paintings and celebrated in novels.
In many ways, artists help us see more clearly. Different artists are guides to different things. Chardin, for example, teaches us to see the extraordinary beauty in the ordinary— a leg of lamb, a man reading, a glass of Cabernet and loaf of bread, a blue and white vase— while Cezanne instructs us in the loveliness of baskets of apples and Monet in the exquisite color and light of water lilies. Before Chardin, we never thought so much aesthetic pleasure could be derived from something as simple as a commonplace kitchen. But after seeing “The Kitchen Maid,” we realize that even a maid can possess dignity.
In his endlessly interesting The Art of Travel, which illuminated how new places can inspire new thoughts and how to overcome the boredom of sightseeing, Botton demonstrates how art can make us appreciate our travels more deeply. At the beginning of Chapter VII “On Eye-Opening Art,” Botton visits a few friends in Provence, a destination which conjures romantic images of lavender fields and olive trees. Despite its reputation as a place of unbelievable beauty, Botton finds Provence less than picturesque: the olive trees look “stunted, more like bushes than trees,” while the wheat fields evoke the “flat, dull expanses of south-eastern England where [he] had attended a school and been unhappy.”
It is only after reading a book on Van Gogh that he begins to become more attentive to his surroundings. Van Gogh, who moved to the south of France in 1888, told his brother he left Paris for Arles for two reasons: “because he had wanted to paint the south” and because he had wanted, through his work, to help other people to “see” it.
Through his careful attention, Van Gogh does— indeed— succeed in helping Botton see Provence. One clear morning as he sits on the terrace with a pain au chocolat, Botton sees two towering cypresses. Why had he never noticed them? And why had these unremarkable, rather strange trees, which were once relegated to the background, entered the foreground of his consciousness and become the central object of contemplation?
Botton credits Van Gogh’s “Wheat Field With Cypresses” with his newfound appreciation. Though Botton has obviously seen cypresses before, it is only after studying Van Gogh that he recognizes their unique movement, their surreal shape, their dark green color against the golden wheat landscape. In 1888 and 1889, the artist had been obsessed with the trees: “They are constantly occupying my thoughts,” he wrote his brother, “it astonishes me that they have not yet been done as I see them. The cypress is as beautiful of line and proportion as an Egyptian obelisk. And the green has such a quality of distinction. It is a splash of black in a sunny landscape, but is one of the most interesting black notes, and the most difficult to hit off exactly.”
Because Van Gogh cherished these trees, he devoted himself to expressing his vision and produced what are perhaps the most innovative paintings of the 19th century. His affection for his subject inspires Botton to look more closely. With Van Gogh as his guide, the cypress is no longer a straggly mass of green— it’s a wonder of color and harmony. Oscar Wilde once said there had been no fog in London before Whistler painted it. With equal wit, Botton remarks, “There had surely been fewer cypresses in Provence before Van Gogh painted them.“
Van Gogh also awakens Botton’s unappreciative eyes to the glorious colors of Provence’s Mediterranean landscape. In a passage of rich description, the philosopher paints an idyllic picture of the French countryside:
“The mistral, blowing along the Rhine valley from the Alps, regularly clears the skies of clouds and moisture, leaving it a pure rich blue without a trace of white. At the same time, a high water table and good irrigation promote a plant life of singular lushness for a Mediterranean climate. With no water shortages to restrict its growth, the vegetation draws full benefit from the great advantages of the south: light and heat…The combination of cloudless sky, dry air, water and rich vegetation leaves the region dominated by vivid primary, contrasting colors.”
In the 19th century, most artists depicted Provence in soft complementary colors like blues and earthy browns. Van Gogh, to borrow the words of Botton, was “incensed by this neglect of the landscape’s natural color scheme.” “The majority of [painters] because they are not colorists…do not see yellow, orange or sulfur in the South,” the artist once complained, “and they call a painter mad if he sees with eyes other than theirs.” Van Gogh revolted against popular conceptions of Provence and soaked his canvases in bright primary colors, juxtaposing them in striking ways: red poppies next to a yellow farmhouse, hunter’s green olive trees against clear blue skies and fluffy white clouds.
Van Gogh’s consideration for color teaches Botton to see with more sensitivity. Before being exposed to the post-impressionist painter, Botton’s capacity to see was barely better than a blind man’s. He couldn’t understand why people called Provence’s hills “picturesque”— to him, they were an ugly, dry, dirty brown, no different from the hills in California or England. But after seeing Van Gogh’s “Orange Roof” and “Meadow with Poppies,” his bland surroundings become more brilliant. “Everywhere I looked, I could see primary colors in contrast,” he writes, “Besides the house was a violet-colored field of lavender next to a yellow field of wheat. The roofs of the buildings were orange against a pure blue sky. Green meadows were dotted with red poppies.”
All in all, Botton’s The Art of Travel reminds us of the irreplaceable role of art and the artist. More than just momentarily entertain or ravish our senses, a poem or painting encourages us to cherish what usually escapes our notice. In our normal, hurried lives, we move at such a velocity that the magnificence of the world barely registers. But when we gaze upon “Starry Night,” we can sit and savor the surreal Saint Remy sky and therefore become more conscious of its awe-inspiring crescent moon.