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A visit to the Auvers-Sur-Oise of Vincent van Gogh.

AUVERS-SUR-OISE, the last home of Vincent van Gogh and scene of some of his most renowned work: what is it like today? Can the motifs which inspired him still be seen there? Such questions as these led me to visit Auvers recently, just as I had been attracted to the Forest of Fontainbleau to visit Barbizon and Chailly-en-Biere and to the Brittany coast to follow in the footsteps of Gauguin. And, does it not deepen our appreciation of art to be in the milieu in which it was created? So, come with me now to Auvers, a small town on the banks of the River Oise, some thirty kilometres north-west of Paris.

Auvers has changed remarkably little during the one hundred years since Vincent van Gogh died there, in the Ravoux Inn (still to be seen) on 29th July, 1890. It is a friendly town, it is not over-modernised, and although it has grown from a population of 2,256 in 1892 to some 6,500 it is still a comfortable, even cozy place. It was friendly in Vincent's day: Dr. Gachet was a true friend and we know that in the month of his death Vincent was planning to leave the Ravoux Inn and to find a more permanent apartment. It has been said, |many people there loved him for his goodness and humanity'. In this statement alone we get a preliminary insight into one of the reasons for his staggering world-wide reputation.

I visited Auvers in early spring. The first sign you see, on the L'Isle-Adam to Pontoise Road, reads |Auvers, village des peintres'. Its main street is a long, straggling one squeezed in between the river bank to the east and the steeply mounting hillside to the plain above to the west. Just below the road runs the railway. As you drive into the town you can see little which reminds you of his work, for the roadway is narrow and the buildings climbing up the hill present no view of the church tower. It was the church at Auvers I wanted to see first of all. I had difficulty in finding it. When I did so, I came across it exactly as you see it in his painting of the church (1) and I came to a halt at almost the exact spot where he would have set up his easel. There was no one about; it was a moment when one loses one's breath.

At last I think I understand what he was doing in this extraordinary painting: he portrays the church as a living thing, pulsating with spiritual life. No where else in Auvers does he distort the configuration of a building as he does here. Van Gogh was very aware of God and somewhere writes, |Try to understand the last word the serious masters say in their masterpieces: there is God in it'. This important and illuminating statement is displayed on a panel near the church. The church here, the central heart and core of life in Auvers, is energised in the painting: the stones cry out.

Just opposite is a sign with an arrow: |Tombeau de Vincent van Gogh', leading you up the hill. I walked up the hill. As soon as you crest the hill you are on familiar ground, you are on the rolling fields of the Vexin Plain, scene of perhaps his last and certainly one of his most renowned canvases Wheat Field with Crows (2). There are the dividing tracks, one to the left, one twisting ahead, one off to the right. It was March, so the wheat was only a few inches high but, most remarkable of all, the black, black crows swooped low over the field just as they do in the painting.

One can reflect for a long time here: the wide expanse of the sky, the rolling plain mounting gradually before you; behind you the village lies hidden by the crest of the hill; the silence broken only by the sound of the wind in the grass and the occasional caw of the crows. Even without van Gogh one would be brought to reflection here or has one fallen totally within the magic of his vision? I picked up a stone from beside the path, just where he would have stood, and put it in my pocket. I have it in my studio now.

He painted several canvases hereabouts, Wheat Fields Under Clouded Sky (3) is one. |They are infinitely vast wheat fields beneath a dismal sky', he wrote, (Letter 649). But there are also joyous paintings from the same location and the same month, July: Plain Near Auvers (4) and Bank of the Oise (5). As I stood there I had a strong feeling that it was up here that the fatal shot rang out and that it was down that straggling path he had stumbled, back down the hill, past the church, down the rue Daubigny to the Ravoux Inn. We are not to know.

Crossing over to the north I entered the cemetery. Vincent's and Theo's tombs are covered with symbolic ivy which was brought from Dr. Gachet's garden by his son, Paul Gachet, in 1946. A notice nearby, in many languages, is informative but, unfortunately, incorrect in one respect in that it attributes the ivy to Theo's widow. Visitors from all over the world come here to pay their respects.

Turning back down the hill you immediately come across Landscape at Auvers in the Rain (6). It was not raining when I came on the scene. Very little has changed here over the past one hundred years. The noticeable evergreen trees are still there, as are the buildings on the left although the more varied crops in the picture had been replaced by green wheat only. The same crows flew low over the field (sic).

From here I began to wander, down along the rue Daubigny where you pass little cottages with elderly ladies reading peacefully in the windows, pots of geraniums, tiny gardens with grass grown walls and sleeping cats. A moment later and you are at Village Street and Steps in Auvers with Figures (7). I think Vincent particularly loved this scene. He did two versions of it, a not infrequent habit. It is well to consider what he was doing in this picture. Compositionally it is superb with compensating, rolling diagonals bringing your eye always back to that potential meeting point at the foot of the steps. At this point the road twists off to the left out of sight. The buttress of the wall on the left is balanced by the guttering and down pipe on the right; the houses provide a homely backdrop; the street is animated by walking couples: in fact this is Vincent's most populated landscape in Auvers. It is a picture which radiates contentment.

The door in the wall on the left in the painting leads to the Colombier mansion. I pushed it open and went in to discover the Art Museum and Syndicate d'Initiative. Both are full of interest and the multi-language staff, charming and helpful. An excellent short film on the history of Auvers can be seen. But now, I decided, it was time to drop down to the Ravoux Inn and to think about lunch.

The Ravoux Inn: what an extraordinary image arises in one's mind at the mention of this place. And, as so often at Auvers it is still there, virtually unchanged. The Inn, now named Cafe de la Marie, was in the course of reconstruction, festooned with scaffolding. A tiler was at work on the roof. A traffic light flashed red, amber, green to the left of the Inn. There is a memorial plaque to Vincent. The windows and shutters on the upstairs floor were in a rickety state and certainly original. Peering in the ground floor windows you can see the original wooden floor and some of the old beams. A van Gogh Centre is planned and the quality of the restoration work seems to be of a very high order.

Having by now realised how much there was to see in Auvers I took the car and explored. Driving west I parked on a corner of the rue de Gre and walked up to Thatched Cottages in Chaporval (8). I stood where the two little figures on the left are standing. The cottages are unchanged to this day but, instead of being thatched, are now tiled. Even the doorway and guttering are the same. It was an incredible experience, one hundred years on.

Then you come to Houses in Auvers (9). In some ways this is the least changed view of all. This house is quite unchanged, the angle of the roof (already tiled in Vincent's day), the window on the gable, the chimney, the sloping roof and the long wall, even the shutters are the same colour. The houses beyond are also the same, the trees even very little different. Here particularly I felt in his presence. As in the painting there was no one about, birdsong filled the air, nothing else.

From there I set out to find Dr. Gachet's house. I had been advised at the Museum that a high wall had been built which prevented one from getting much of a view but, nevertheless, you can see the house and the steps up which Vincent and so many of the greatest painters of his age have mounted: Cezanne, Pissaro, Sisley, Guillaumin, Renoir. Dr. Gachet's Garden in Auvers (10) was painted in May 1890 and was, I suspect, one of his first Auvers paintings, if not indeed the first. It is the only one with the writhing, cypress tree motif of the Saint-Remy period of some five to six months earlier. By May, even at Saint-Remy, this theme had begun to disappear but in this painting we have not only the twisted tree motif but the emotion mounts into the sky. Significantly this is the only picture painted from inside a house, from one of the upstairs windows. It is as though he was looking out, as though he needed the confidence of Dr. Gachet's sheltering roof in the early days.

From one garden to another, we move to Daubigny's garden via the Town Hall (11) which is, essentially, unchanged. Van Gogh's distorted bollards are today straight and regular, the square is ashphalt, not grass, the pave remains, as do the chains. Cars are parked here today. The trees have grown. There are buildings behind the Town Hall where, in 1890, only trees were to be seen. Some critics have suggested he painted this picture from a window of the Ravoux Inn but the angle is too low.

And so to Daubigny's Garden (12 & 13). Who does not know Daubigny's garden from Vincent's lovely paintings? And who has not perhaps been puzzled, as I have been, by that amazingly long, severe roof of blue or green? I peered through the iron railings and rose trellis: there is the curving drive to the right, the garden has lost its island bed, no cat crept across the roughly mown grass. The church is now obscured by more recent buildings.

Nearby is another delight, the former Cafe Partois, the earliest haunt of Daubigny and his friend Corot. Was it not here he welcomed his friends from the railway station opposite? The railway station, later painted by Vlaminck, on the platform of which Vincent arrived on 20th May 1890, is well worth a visit: little has been altered. However, if you take the train to Paris from L'Isle-Adam, the very line shown so sympathetically in Landscape with Carriage and Train in the Background (14), you will find all the other stations have been modernised. Here an enlightened hand has preserved the old structure and, for anyone who has seen Maurice Pilat's film van Gogh it is easy to reconstruct the scene of his arrival here. From here I returned to the centre of Auvers. Chestnut Trees with Pink Blossom (15) shows us three women walking past and opposite the Ravoux Inn. And might that not be Vincent himself walking towards us on the left?

I went on to see the 17th century Lery Chateau, now undergoing total restoration. Close up it has none of the softness lent it by distance in Landscape with the Chateau of Auvers at Sunset (16) and one can understand why Vincent took this distant, sunset view which reduces all its expensive ornamental architecture to a mere blurr. I know of no other work of his dealing with the same subject. But the real subject, of course, is not the chateau but the setting sun, the darkly massed trees and the verdant, work-free fields. Where he painted this picture is now the rue van Gogh, close to the railway, and new buildings obscure the view he had in his time.

Finally, join me in a stroll up the rue Rayon to the View of the Oise with Bridge (17). Here, although the bridge is new and modern buildings clutter-up the far bank of the river, you can make out the same line of fencing which separates one patch from the next: no women at work, nor cows grazing, just one man tending some plants.

So much to see: some seventy to eighty paintings in sixty-eight working days between 20 May and 27 July. And there is so much else: the Daubigny Museum, the van Gogh Park, the island of Vaux, Cordeville -- one could go on. One final sight I will describe.

The day ended with a final visit to the Vexin Plain to see, across the fields, the site of Wheat Field with Crows. On the very corner of the cemetery we looked back and, could it be possible? Away to the north stretched the Plain, ending in a clump of trees which formed, as it seemed, a copse. In the foreground was an ancient, abandoned hay wagon and, what else, a plough? The crows were flighting, it was becoming dusk. It was Millet's Plough and Harrow come to life, and Vincent had interpreted Millet's 1866 theme at Saint-Remy in 1890. Time stood still.

So much to see. But what a satisfying visit. Vincent had, once again, given us so much.

Just after visiting Auvers I had the opportunity of going to see the |van Gogh in England Exhibition' at the Barbizon Gallery in London. Amongst its many revelations was the discovery of such persistent a theme as the tree lined path usually with a solitary figure. One of Vincent's very first drawings from his earliest Dutch period shows a twisting road with some bleak trees and swirling crows. I was immediately struck by its thematic similarity to Wheat Field with Crows: the bleak foreboding, the alternative routes ahead, the sweeping black of the crows: a Dutch landscape had been transformed into a French wheat field, but the images were the same.

But one cannot leave Auvers on such a sombre note. For the most part the Auvers canvases are joyous ones and it is this sense of joy you carry away with you, joy and a profound gratefulness to Vincent van Gogh for all the pleasure, understanding and hope he has given to people all over the world for more than one hundred years. In his work he has brought us |the consoling permanence of art'.


1. The Church at Auvers, Paris, Musee d'Orsay. 2. Wheat Field with Crows, Amsterdam, Vincent van Gogh Foundation. 3. Wheat Fields under Clouded Sky, Pittsburg, Museum of Art. 4. Plain near Auvers, Munich, Bayerische staatsgemalde-sammlungen. 5. Bank of the Oise, Detroit, Institute of Arts. 6. Landscape at Auvers in the Rain, Cardiff, National Museum of Wales. 7. Village Street and Steps in Auvers with Figures, St. Louis, St. Louis Art Museum. 8. Thatched Cottages in Chaporval, Zurich, Kunsthaus. 9. Houses in Auvers, Toledo, Museum of Art. 10. Dr. Gachet's Garden in Auvers, Paris, Musee d'Orsay. 11. Auvers Town Hall, Spain, private collection. 12. Daubigny's Garden, Basel, Kuntsmuseum. 13. Daubigny's Garden, Hiroshima, Museum of Art. 14. Landscabe with Carriage and Train in the Background, Moscow, Puskin Museum. 15. Chestnut Trees with Pink Blossom, South America, private collection. 16. Landscape with the Chateau of Auvers at Sunset, Amsterdam, Vincent van Gogh Foundation. 17. View of the Oise with Bridge, London, private collection.
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Title Annotation:Dutch painter
Author:Vickers, Philip
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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