AN HOMAGE TO VAN GOGH

“Mon Dieu! Ils sont américains!” It seems we are a bit of a curiosity in this small village on the banks of the River Oise, just 20 miles north of Paris. White socks gave us away before we even opened our mouths. Apparently, 99% of visitors to Auvers-sur-Oise are day trippers. Of those, 90% are French with Americans making up less than a percentage point.

And here we are, four Americans spending two nights in one of the few pensions. No wonder we have caused some raised eyebrows as we explore the village streets and walk the country lanes.

When we showed up for an afternoon beer the second day in a row at the local pub, the young French proprietor came out from behind the bar and warmly shook our hands as though we were longtime friends. At dinners in L’isle-Adam, just 8 kilometers up river (Auvers’s restaurants close in the evening), everyone had a ready smile and wanted to talk to us. And the question was always asked, “Pourquoi êtes vous ici?”

So, why are four Americans wandering the streets of this obscure village? We are on a sort of pilgrimage. Rocamadour may have St. Amadour and Compostela has St. James, but Auvers has Vincent who created a few miracles of his own and suffered greatly for them.

Most people think Vincent van Gogh is buried in the South of France, or perhaps Holland. Not so. His mortal remains repose in the village cemetery of Auvers-Sur-Oise. Van Gogh spent the last 70 days of his life here and painted more than 70 canvases, including the well-known “L’Eglise de Auvers.” The town has become a virtual memorial to him, changing little since 1890.

Ville Des Impressionnistes

The history of the town has been subordinated by the history of the man, nevertheless, Bronze Age remains place a settlement at Auvers in the 2nd century A.D. The town acquired its Romanesque-Gothic church during the 11th and 12th centuries, a manor in the 17th century, and a chateau in the 18th century. In the 19th century, the railroad put Auvers within a few hours travel from Paris and well-to-do Bourgeoisie trickled in to establish weekend and summer homes.

In 1861 the artist, Charles-Francois Daubigny (1818-1878), established a home and atelier in Auvers. Earlier, he had moored his floating studio called “Le Botin” here as he sought to capture the effect of light on water.

In this endeavor, he was often joined by Corot and Daumier. Paul Cèzanne lived in Auvers for 18 months of 1872-1874, and, some experts believe, evolved his style under the influence of Dr. Gachet, a Parisian doctor who was also an engraver and painter and devotee of the Impressionist movement.

Dr. Paul Gachet, who painted under the pseudonym of Van Ryssal, had established a weekend home in Auvers, which became a gathering place for the Impressionists. Pissarro, Sisley, Guillaumin, Renoir and others were entertained by him and affected by the ensuing discussions of artistic technique and expression.

And then on the 20th of May in 1890, Vincent van Gogh arrived straight from St. Remy where he’d been voluntarily institutionalized for the past 12 months. His brother Theo, who provided for him financially, gave him a letter of introduction to Dr. Gachet, and Vincent moved into a garret at the Café de Mairie across from the town hall. At the time, Arthur Gustave Ravoux was the proprietor of the little café and inn that today bears his name, the Auberge Ravoux.

Van Gogh Á Auvers

Vincent wrote his brother that “Auvers is gravely beautiful,” and he started to paint the village and then the countryside nearby. Completing a canvas a day, he finally found himself free of the demons that had pursued him. It was not to last. On July 7, after a disastrous visit to his brother, Vincent came back to Auvers in despair. Theo was seriously ill and in financial straits, and Vincent felt like a lethal burden on his brother’s family. He vowed to repay the money or die.

He set out on a frenzy of painting. Of “Wheat Field with Crows” and “Wheat Field Under Clouded Sky,” he wrote, “They are vast stretches of corn under troubled skies, and I did not have to go out of my way very much to express sadness and extreme loneliness.”

On Sunday, July 27, Vincent put an end to the “sadness that would go on forever.” He shot himself in his precious wheat fields, and, upon finding that he’d rather botched the job, stumbled back to his room at the inn. He died two days later with his brother, who’d been summoned from Paris, at his side.

They laid him in a coffin set on trestles in the painter’s room at the inn and draped it with a simple white cloth. His friends turned the room into a “chapelle ardente.” Tom Hirschig, fellow painter and housemate, gathered greenery. Dr. Gachet brought masses of yellow flowers – dahlias and sunflowers. Before the casket stood his stool and brushes. Theo nailed his canvases on the walls around the coffin: “The Church at Auvers,” “Daubigny’s Garden,” “Child with Orange,” “Piètà after Delacroix,” “The Prisoner’s Round after Dorè,” “Portrait of Adeline Ravoux” and “Town Hall of Auvers, July 14.”

Friends started arriving. Emile Bernard wrote, “The canvases formed a kind of halo around him, rendering, through the brilliance of the genius that shone from them, his death even more painful for us artists.” Tom Hirschig was left with a darker impression. He wrote, “From his coffin, which was badly made, there escaped a stinking liquid. . . . I saw it as a sign that everything was terrible about this man. . . . I think he suffered a great deal in this world.”

A cortege of 20 artists and others followed Vincent’s casket to the village cemetery where he was placed next to a stone wall, which bordered the wheat fields. Theo died in Holland six months later, and his widow had his body moved to Auvers in 1914. Today, the brothers lie side by side, their tomb interlaced by a single shroud of ivy planted years later by Dr. Gachet’s son.

La Raison d’Être

And that is why these white-socked Americans are in Auvers-sur-Oise. We are here in May, the same month that Van Gogh arrived, and the chestnut trees are in bloom. Their fragrant pink flowers look like lacy tapered candles that brighten up the green. The church at Auvers looks solid and gray and the wheat fields are green and empty of crows. And yet, when we compare them to the replicas of Van Gogh’s work which flank each site, we start to see differently.

We’re here to pay homage and gain insight, and Auvers has set up to help us do just that. They have laid out a “route de peintures,” which wends its way through the old village and countryside that Van Gogh, and others, painted. Replicas of the paintings mark each site. On a hill above the town, the restored Chateau now houses a museum called Le Voyage au Temps des Impressionnistes. Not a single painting inside; rather the museum is a journey through time which reveals, through sight and sound, the influences that created Impressionism as a genre. We enter a 19th century café and sit at little round tables to view the masterpieces of the café scenes on the little stage: Toulouse-Lautrec’s Moulin Rouge dancers, Renoir’s ballerinas, and Manet’s “Bar at the Folies-Bergere.” At the train station we sit on wooden benches amidst a tumble of leather trunks and watch a 1906 Edison movie entitled “The Absinthe Fanatic’s Dream,” possibly the first special effects movie. Then we “ride” a faux 19th century rail car as Impressionistic views of the countryside fly by.

In town, the Auberge Ravoux (also called La Maison de Van Gogh) offers tours of Vincent’s austere quarters as well as a traditional menu of regional fare in the same cafe where Van Gogh took his meals. In 1956, Vincent Minnelli filmed “Lust for Life” here with Kirk Douglas playing the talented but hapless Van Gogh.

Besides the walking tour, the museum and the café, Dr. Gachet’s home is open for tours, as is the Maison-Atelier de Daubigny. The Absinthe Museum offers glimpses into the Turn of the 20th Century café life so popular with the artist set, and the small beach along the Oise, Van Gogh’s “Bank of the Oise at Auvers,” is still popular with locals.

Our time in Auvers ends too quickly, and we have not seen it all. But we are affected by our wanderings and take away ineffable impressions that only brush strokes might express.

(Sources: “Van Gogh’s Table at the Auberge Ravoux,“ by Alexandra Leaf and Fred Leeman; “Vincent van Gogh in Auvers,” by Claude Millon; tourist office literature and maps.)