Sandra Westbrooke tells the story of the artist’s last 70 days of life
“It is profoundly beautiful, it is the real country, characteristic and picturesque”
So wrote Vincent Van Gogh when he arrived in the tranquil village of Auvers-sur-Oise on May 29, 1890, where he was to spend the final 70 days of his turbulent life.
Some 35 km north-west of Paris and a favourite of Impressionists such as Cézanne, Pissarro and Corot, Auvers has changed little in the intervening years. Come out of the train station, turn left along the main street, and soon you are surrounded by the buildings and landscapes that inspired some of Van Gogh’s best-known works – the town hall, old stone cottages, winding lanes, and, on the edge of town, the gothic church and wheat fields with their menacing crows.
Thoughtfully, big reproductions of his paintings are placed just where he set up his easel, giving an instant connection to the past. And best of all, because it’s off the tourist trail, there are no crowds or queues to stop you lingering wherever you like – especially on a weekday.
Earlier that May, Van Gogh had left an asylum in the south of France, and gone to lodge with his brother Theo in the French capital. But the city’s noise and bustle proved too much for his fragile state of mind, and Pissarro suggested a stay in Auvers, where Dr Paul Gachet, who was interested in mental conditions and was himself an artist, would keep an eye on him.
Vincent found a cheap room in the garret of the local inn, now the Auberge Ravoux, and became friends with the doctor, going to his house every Sunday for lunch. Gachet told him the best thing for his condition was to “Paint, paint, paint”. He obeyed, and soon became consumed by a creative fever which resulted in more than 70 paintings, at least one a day, and 30 drawings.
“I go to bed at 9 and rise at 5,” he wrote. He set off in the cool of the dawn, easel strapped on his back, to capture the sun and shadows on fields, gardens, thatched roofs, forest glades and, most famously, Notre-Dame de l’Assomption, “violet-hued against a sky of simple dark blue, pure cobalt”. He also painted villagers – Adeline Ravoux, the daughter of the innkeeper, Dr Gachet’s daughter Marguerite in her garden, a young man with a cornflower, a child with an orange. His brother came to visit him with his wife and baby son. “I am almost too calm,” he wrote, his confidence growing that better days were to come.
But early in July he learnt that Theo, who was supporting him, had financial and health problems. He became obsessed with the idea he had failed and was a burden. Depression returned and the landscapes took on a darker hue. “There are vast stretches of corn under troubled skies, and I did not have to go out of my way very much to try to express sadness and extreme loneliness,” he wrote to his brother.
On Sunday, July 27, it all became too much. After lunch at the inn, he went out. It was night before he was seen again, bent over, making his way slowly to his room. The innkeeper found him in bed, bleeding from a chest wound – he said he had decided to put an end to his sadness with an old pistol. Both the local physician and Dr Gachet were summoned, but there was nothing they could do. He died two days later, Theo at his side, and was buried in the cemetery not far from the church he had so memorably painted.
Today much of the town remains as he knew it, although the trees by the Hôtel de Ville have grown, and cars are parked around the forecourt. You can visit the inn where he lived and died, wander through the Gachets’ house and garden, have a quiet moment in the church and find the field where he decided to end it all.
Auvers is proud of its artistic heritage. The l7th-century chateau that dominates the town was recently restored and now hosts a multi-media show which immerses you in the atmosphere of the Impressionists’ world, while down the hill is a museum devoted to absinthe, the highly alcoholic ‘green fairy’, banned in 1915, which was an important part of their café life. A precursor of the Impressionists, Daubigny, lived in the town some two decades before Van Gogh, and his house is now a museum.
In a park near the station, children play by a larger-than-life bronze sculpture by Ossip Zadkine which shows Vincent striding out for a painting session, brush in hand. But the most moving part of a visit must surely be a pilgrimage to the cemetery.
You reach it through a narrow lane running north-east from the church, between the fields he immortalised. Go through the gate, and on the north side is his simple headstone, now swathed in ivy. There had been no religious service at the burial – he was a Protestant, and had committed suicide – but Dr Gachet spoke a few emotional words. Six months later, Theo died in Holland, and his widow later arranged for his body to be interred beside his brother’s. It’s a peaceful place, surrounded by a sheltering wall, but heartrending, too, when you remember the artist’s torment and wonder if anything more could have been done to help him.
Today, Auvers can be reached in an hour by SCNF trains from Paris’s Gare du Nord station, changing at Valmondois, or in half an hour on special direct trains that run on weekends and public holidays from April to the end of October, leaving at 0956 and returning at 1818.
To visit by car, take the A15 motorway, direction Cergy-Pontoise, exit number 7 (Saint-Ouen-l’Aumône) then the RT184 direction Amiens-Beauvais. Exit Méry-sur-Oise/Auvers-sur-Oise. Once in the village, follow directions for Auvers-sur-Oise.
The very helpful tourist information office in the centre of Auvers sells inclusive tickets to the main attractions, and has a map with details in both English and French, along with a further brochure (in French) of walks there and in neighbouring Pontoise, pinpointing the many places captured in oils.
Although you can see the village, church and cemetery at any time, be aware that the paying attractions close in winter (dates vary).
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