Creativity comes in many different guises but destinations often play a leading role as artistic inspiration. For many painters, humans weren’t their only muses—the places they visited or settled in proved to be catalysts for creativity and expression. And just as artists have found inspiration in nature and nooks, their paintings can also inspire us to discover these rich and rewarding places.
I first visited Rügen, Germany, because of Caspar David Friedrich’s Chalk Cliffs on Rügen. Painted in 1818, it depicts nature at its most spiritual and not just as a backdrop to the human figure. The three characters depicted—a man, a woman, and their friend—almost disappear within the white cliffs. To view the painting in real life, head to the Oskar Reinhart Collection Am Römerholz in Winterthur, Switzerland. To see the fabled chalk cliffs for yourself, head to the Baltic Sea island, the largest in Germany.
Rügen boasts spectacular beaches—even if they are a bit windswept this time of year—as well as elegant restaurants but it’s Jasmund National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, that is a must-visit. Here, framed by ancient beech forests, you can enjoy the same view as the characters in Friedrich’s painting. The rugged coast spans seven miles and the while cliffs stand out from the crystal blue expanse of the Baltic Sea to dazzling effect. Of special note is the observation deck at Königsstuhl (King’s Chair), which has the best views of the peninsula and where you can experience an aesthetic and romantic connection with nature, evoking a feeling of the sublime.
A wonderful prelude to the city of Delft in the Netherlands is Vermeer’s masterpiece: View of Delft. In this painting, we see the city from the south. Nothing special is happening—some people are waiting on the dock, big, beautiful clouds pass across the sky—but the city and the sunlit spire of the Nieuwe Kerk are the focal points.
Today, the Nieuwe Kerk, the final resting place for the Dutch royal family, sits in the heart of the Market—the main town square—together with the Old Church, which is Vermeer’s gravesite. From the square, you can walk along the Oude Delft canal and traverse the picturesque back streets, which call to mind the alleys and houses Vermeer depicted in his work.
Delft offers a personal cultural alternative to touristy Amsterdam. Tulips, blue and white hand-painted porcelain (for which Delft is world-renowned), and wooden clog shops abound. Still, its sedate pace makes it a pleasing respite from larger cities. Don’t hesitate to walk around Delft until you come upon the point where Vermeer painted his view. Then, if you want to admire the masterpiece in person, take a train to the Hague and visit the Mauritshuis Museum.
In 1890, Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh moved to Auvers-sur-Oise, a bucolic village near Paris, to live closer to his brother, Theo, and to his physician, Dr. Paul Gachet. Van Gogh spent the last years of his life in this quaint village before dying by suicide in July 1890. A month earlier, Van Gogh painted one of his most beloved post-impressionist oil masterpieces.
The Church at Auvers is now housed in the Musee D’Orsay in Paris but it’s Auvers that is its spiritual home. Van Gogh wanted to instill his own emotions—both light and dark—into the religious building and the riotous sky above it. “The building appears purplish against a sky of a deep and simple blue of pure cobalt, the stained-glass windows look like ultramarine blue patches, the roof is violet and in part orange,” he wrote to his sister.
Discover a brighter view of the church and the town itself when you visit. Set on the charming Oise River, the village pays homage to Van Gogh—you can’t go far without noticing his lasting impact on the town. Follow the trails dotted with panels that reproduce his works. Traipse around the small roads, which are blessedly nearly car-free, and spy the circular metal plaques emblazoned with “Vincent.” The church depicted in the painting still stands. It’s small and simple but evokes a feeling of peace inside.
Head to Dr. Gachet’s home, open to visitors, which features a garden of cypress and cedar trees. Another must-see on the itinerary is No. 5 of L’auberge Ravoux, where the artist lived during the last two months of his life. The room is simple and threadbare—the furnishings have remained as they were when he passed. It moved me emotionally when I visited.
Don’t leave town without paying respects at the small country cemetery. Here, Van Gogh and his brother lay at rest, side by side, under a cover of ivy. Leave a sunflower or two as a token of your esteem.