BY CHERYL ANDERSON
On November 12, 1991, my daughter and I had an early breakfast at the house—she was living in Paris at the time. Our plan was to go to Auvers-sur-Oise where Vincent Van Gogh lived and where he succumbed, on July 29, 1890, to a gunshot wound inflicted three days before. I have long had a keen interest in Van Gogh, his art, his courage, and endless hope.
We made our way to Gare St.Lazare to catch the train to Pontoise. In Pontoise we accidentally got on the wrong train to Auvers-sur-Oise, a commune in the northwestern suburbs of Paris, located 27.2 km from the city center. We had to return to Pontoise—fortunately, the trains came often so there wasn’t much of a wait. The correct train, as I remember, was small and on the quaint side, as was the train station in Auvers-sur-Oise. It’s been a long time since then and perhaps it’s changed. I plan on visiting again next time in Paris to see.
Once we got to Auvers-sur-Oise, we stopped for coffee and a crepe in town and then walked around. We saw the small intimate cemetery in the field behind the church where Vincent is buried. The church is the subject of one of Van Gogh’s most famous paintings, Notre Dame. From there we walked up the hill where plastic-covered posters on metal stands show the scenes other artists had painted from each vantage point. The waitress told us the streets are lined with flowers in the summer. It must be something to see—the young lady thought it worth mentioning.
Among the other artists that painted in Auvers-sur-Oise are Armand Guillaumin, Camille Pissarro, Monet, Sisley, and Paul Cézanne. The town is much as it was and the homes on the hill have been renovated and are occupied. By the time we left, it was very windy, cold, and dark, but it had been a perfect day trip.
What follows is a short history of Vincent Van Gogh’s time in Auvers-sur-Oise from May to July, about 70 days.
Dr. Peyron, from the clinic in Saint-Rémy, wrote “cured” on the asylum record. The time approached for Vincent to leave the asylum for Auvers-sur-Oise where Dr. Gachet was recommended to he and his brother as someone that could help Vincent. Gachet had counseled Manet, Renoir, Cézanne, and Pissaro. However, there was the lingering opinion that Dr. Gachet would not be able to help, as Vincent would bring his feeling of exile with him. Vincent longed for a fresh start; to begin anew. The painting, Dr. Gachet, shows the doctor with foxgloves in a glass, symbolizing the doctor’s belief in homeopathic cures.
The artist always come out of his attacks with a manic burst of belated energy and an outpouring of paint, as if to make up for all the canvases cast aside during his delirium. Those were some of his most prolific periods.
Before leaving St. Rémy, he gathered the last of spring’s irises and roses, stuffing them into vases, painting the irises with a background of sunny yellow and another with pale pink. Roses signaled he was indeed hopeful that his future was bright. The canvases quickly filled, one after another. He worked as though in a frenzy. So sure was he that his life would right itself. It’s believed his very last painting was not of cheerful flowers but from a lithograph he had made while in The Hague in 1882. It shows an old man woeful and in despair with his head in his hands sitting by a fire: “I think of it as a shipwreck.” Writing to his brother, he said, “I confess to you that I leave with great grief. . . . Oh, if I could have worked without this accursed disease—what things I might have done.” His paintings were left to dry to be forwarded to Auvers.
On his way to Auvers-sur-Oise, he stopped in Paris and was greeted by his brother Theo at the Paris Gare de Lyon. They had not seen each other for two years except for a brief reunion when Vincent was quite incapacitated in hospital in Arles. He met Theo’s son and wife, Jo, for the first time. The man that arrived in Paris had the look of health, all smiles and joviality. He visited many galleries taking in the modern city. His brother’s apartment was full of the paintings he had sent to him for safekeeping; they were stacked everywhere. Vincent studied them with great interest, the piles of canvases representing his life of past regrets and feelings of exclusion.
Bringing canvases, stretchers, paints, an easel, and brushes, he had hoped for at least two weeks or longer to paint en plein air around Paris. Promising Theo it would be a short stay, to allay his fears of an attack far from medical supervision, Vincent had talked of moving on to Auvers tout suite. Unable to tolerate the hustle and bustle of a big city from the quiet and tranquility of the country, his stay in Paris lasted but three days. Memories from past times in Paris and all the turmoil that had ensued was also a contributing factor for his hasty departure.
The small village of Auvers-sur-Oise, situated in a serene and idyllic countryside, was just what Vincent was longing for at that time. To this day, Auvers-sur-Oise is popular with daytrippers, weekenders, retirees, and seasonal visitors. Over and over, he encouraged Theo, Jo, and baby Vincent to come for an extended stay where there was nature in abundance and fresh air. Once again, as in Arles, his pleading became an obsession. The family did visit but for only one day, June 8, 1890, and Vincent spent a sublime afternoon with his brother’s family in the Eden that is Auvers, hoping Theo would be inspired to find his own countryside pied å terre close by.
Vincent settled into the Auberge Ravoux with a studio in a back room. He looked forward to having the freedom to meet people at will, becoming friends with the Gachet family, but that, too, fell apart due to his outbursts. His two beds from the “yellow house” never arrived (excuses were made), nor did his paintings from various locations. These requests were made in order to fill a larger studio never to become a reality. Portraiture became a passion, and he felt it could become a “money-maker”. All the while, he was taunted, called fou (crazy), and chased by teenage boys. The more “refined” chaps from the Paris schools pretended to like him only to play tricks on him. A day trip to Paris was a disaster, an “agony,” causing him to lose a lot of his will.
What actually happened to cause Vincent’s death, except that it was from a gunshot wound, is up for debate, but less so after the recent biography, Van Gogh: The Life, by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, suggesting perhaps he was shot by one of boys that had tormented him in the village leaving him wounded. The authors propose that Van Gogh did not want to get the lads in trouble and did not report them, so it stood as attempted suicide. One is left to draw his or her own conclusion.
Vincent, despite his unstable behavior, coupled with undiagnosed illnesses, was a decent man wishing only that he could be normal, well liked and admired as an artist. “Oh the pictures I might have made,” is said to be his thinking at the end. It’s believed his final painting was of Daubigny’s garden—three versions are known to exist. In all, he completed seventy-seven paintings in Auvers.
Theo was with Vincent when he died. He dressed the room where he lay, displaying Vincent’s paintings, some not yet dry, draping the coffin with flowers, primarily yellow, and other greenery, and placing candles around the room. His last gesture was to position Vincent’s easel, palette, and stool at the foot of the casket. He buried Vincent in a sun-drenched spot amid the wheat fields. Theo is buried next to his beloved brother. Each of their graves is covered with ivy.
In Auvers-sur-Oise, I saw the church, Notre Dame, and the fields where crows flew. Vincent would capture them on canvas. Until my visit, I was unaware that he had died on my birthday. Many years later, I wrote a haiku that was published:
van gogh walked
and i was moved