Vincent came to Saint-Remy de Provence on 8 May 1889 to be voluntarily committed to the Saint-Paul de Mausole psychiatric institution, which was housed in a former monastery. He had suffered a series of severe breakdowns since December 1888 and believed he should be institutionalised for his own sake and that of others. He received good treatment from his doctor, Théophile Peyron, who was convinced that Vincent did not have a psychiatric illness but was suffering from epilepsy. He was prescribed two hours of alternating hot and cold baths twice a week; so-called hydrotherapy was often used to treat mental illness in the 19th century.
A great many of the asylum’s rooms were empty, and Vincent was able to use one as a studio. He wrote to his brother Theo:
“I have a little room with grey-green paper with two water-green curtains with designs of very pale roses enlivened with thin lines of blood-red. These curtains, probably the leftovers of a ruined, deceased rich man, are very pretty in design. Probably from the same source comes a very worn armchair covered with a tapestry flecked in the manner of a Diaz or a Monticelli, red-brown, pink, creamy white, black, forget-me-not blue and bottle green. Through the iron-barred window I can make out a square of wheat in an enclosure, a perspective in the manner of Van Goyen, above which in the morning I see the sun rise in its glory.”
Although Vincent had stipulated as a condition of his admission that he be allowed to work outside the asylum, in his first weeks he did not need to: the view from his bedroom and the garden were enough for him. In his busyness, Vincent contrasted sharply with the other patients, whom he referred to as “wretches who do absolutely nothing”.
He stayed in touch with Paul Gauguin, Emile Bernard, and his brother Theo, who kept him apprised of developments in the art world and corresponded with him in detail about his work. Vincent also maintained contact with his friends Joseph Roulin and the Ginouxs. After a few weeks, he was granted permission to work outside the asylum and ventured into the countryside to paint. He was productive and sent much of his work to his brother Theo, who received it with great enthusiasm.
Vincent suffered another attack in mid-July. Afterward, he had little desire to go out, and he stayed in his studio copying the work of masters he admired, such as Jean-François Millet, Rembrandt and Eugène Delacroix. He also produced self-portraits and continued working on studies he had started previously.
In late December, Vincent had another psychotic episode, in which he went completely out of his mind, eating refuse off the ground and attempting to poison himself by ingesting paint and lamp oil. Vincent’s attacks often left him unable to work for long periods. In February and March, he suffered two more breakdowns. He decided to leave for northern France to escape the climate and get away from the other mental patients. Dr Peyron pronounced him cured, and on 16 May 1890, Vincent left for Auvers-sur-Oise to live on his own under the supervision of another doctor.