Although Vincent had earned the respect of the Paris avant-garde by the time he left, the pace of city life adversely effected his delicate psychological condition, and he preferred to work alone in any case. Leaving Paris and the influence of the Impressionist and neo-Impressionist avant-garde allowed him to develop his own singular style of heavy, modeled, rhythmic brushwork and distinctive color. He believed "the painter of the future will be a colorist such as has never yet existed" [L 482, May 1888]. His mature style was influenced temporarily by his informal Impressionist apprenticeship, but it was very different in visual character and emotional intent.
In Arles, van Gogh returned to (and refined) his previous favorite subject matter–rural-themed painting after Millet, landscape, and portraiture, escaping the Impressionist theoretical and methodological influence that posed the danger of making him "irrevocably dulled" (L 21 Feb. 1888). Nearly all of the paintings that have become associated with van Gogh in our culture, the vast majority of his masterpieces in his mature style, were painted in the compulsively productive final two and half years of his life, in Arles and then in the St. Remy asylum and Auvers, where he died. Vincent was taken with the southern rural charm of Arles, and particularly with the women, and he began his stay there painting winter landscapes and still lives. He moved on to the blossoming fruit trees in the spring, his favorite of which was Flowering Tree, Souvenir of Mauve, dedicated to his recently deceased friend and cousin. In March, Theo managed to have his brother's work shown at an important exhibition of the Artistes Independents in Paris, which was a heartening sign of real inclusion in the Paris avant-garde. Vincent insisted his work be registered only under his first name, just as he signed his canvasses.
In May, Vincent moved into the "little yellow house" in Arles, where he remained until his move to the St. Remy asylum in May 1889. He befriended several local residents during his fourteen months in Arles, some of whom he painted repeatedly, notably The Zouave, the postman Joseph Roulin and his family (these stunningly rendered portraits comprise one of his greatest accomplishments in Arles), the Belgian artist Eugene Boch, and Marie Ginoux (an important friend during his last few years, immortalized as L'Arlesienne). His use of extremely bold, seemingly arbitrary color (or color with spiritual or symbolic significance) catapults these portraits into a realm of otherworldly splendor and strangeness years ahead of their time, particularly in the Roulin family paintings and Portrait of Patience Escalier, a portrait of a local gardener. Vincent aimed at conveying "something of the eternal... by the actual radiance and vibration of... coloring" (L 531, Sept. 1888). He expounded in his increasingly incoherent and rambling letters his newfound understanding of the historical significance of his work, regardless of public opinion and lack of sales.
In addition to portraits, Vincent also painted diligent series of the wheat harvest, and his famous Sunflowers series. His landscapes were as varied as The Sower and Pavement Cafe at Night. But he was lonely, yearning for the company of the other artists that he had enjoyed in Paris. In July, Gauguin accepted Vincent and Theo's offer to move in with Vincent in Arles in the hope that they could together spearhead Vincent's dream of founding an artistic community there. Before Gauguin arrived, van Gogh had exchanged self- portraits with Gauguin (the unsettling masterpiece Self-Portrait Dedicated to Paul Gauguin, Charles Laval, and Emile Bernard, and they in turn sent their self-portraits. By the time Gauguin arrived in October, Vincent had produced some of his most important portraits and self-portraits, as well as his interior masterpieces The Bedroom and The Night Cafe, the latter in Vincent's estimation was "one of the ugliest pictures I have done... I have tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green" (L 533, Sept. 1888).
These months allowed Vincent to paint at a near frenzied pace, until he felt "broke and crazy" (L 513, July 1888). The Arles months were the most prolific and successful period of his career. However, the stress and sheer physical and mental exertion of this obsessive output was too much for his encroaching illnesses, and his condition gradually worsened reciprocally as his painting became increasingly facile, formally daring, and accomplished. He voiced sentiments of regret at the physical and mental disintegration that he believed were the fault of his obsessive creativity: "The more I am spent, ill, a broken pitcher, by so much more I am an artist... a kind of melancholy remains within us when we think that one could have created life at less cost than creating art" (L 514, July 1888).
Gauguin and Van Gogh worked together fruitfully for two months, heatedly debating art and exchanging paintings (Vincent painted symbolic portraits of him and Gauguin as two chairs), but their friendship became strained after an argument about a Montpellier museum exhibition of Courbet and Delacroix that they visited together on December seventeen, 1888. The strain of living with the difficult and antagonistic Gauguin reached a crisis after a violent argument on December 23. Vincent suffered a total mental collapse, experiencing auditory hallucinations and cutting off the lower lobe of his left ear, possibly during an epileptic seizure while shaving. Gauguin stayed in a hotel that night, and soon afterwards returned to Paris with Theo, whom Gauguin had wired to come to Arles immediately. Vincent was taken to a hospital in Arles after presenting his severed ear to a prostitute named Rachel at a local brothel as a gift, requesting that she "keep this object like a treasure"–a last-ditch attempt at romance after so many failures and rejections.