WALK WITH THE MASTER
Van Gogh arrived in Auvers-sur-Oise by train from Paris on May 21, 1890. He rented an attic room in the Auberge Ravoux for 3.50 francs a week and immediately wrote to his brother Theo in Paris: ‘Auvers is strikingly beautiful’. Vincent would still find Auvers beautiful and the scenes he immortalised – the church, the town hall, the fields, houses and village streets – very little changed.
Like Van Gogh, I arrived in Auvers on the Paris train and quickly settled into an inn. Not the Auberge Ravoux, because it is now a restaurant called ‘La Maison de Van Gogh’, but the 17th century Hostellerie du Nord, where Cezanne had stayed on his visits to Auvers.
Then I set out along the picturesque pathways of Auvers, eager to see for myself what had drawn so many Impressionists to the village. Reproductions of 19 canvasses, 12 by Van Gogh, are displayed on panels positioned where the originals were painted. It’s as if the artists themselves were pointing out the views that had appealed to them, inviting you to see the landscape through their eyes.
Auvers -only 35 kilometres from Paris -was ‘discovered’ by the painter, Charles-Francois Daubigny. In Auvers, he built a floating studio on the river Oise,and in 1861 a house and atelier in the centre of the village. Cezanne, Pissarro, Corot, Daumier and Guillaumin were among those who joined him in Auvers, to make up a flourishing artists’ colony.
A Parisian doctor, Paul Gachet – who painted under the pseudonym of Paul van Riesel – also had a house in the village, where he entertained the leading Impressionists. It was the doctor’s kind assurance to Theo that he would keep an eye on his brother’s precarious health that led to Van Gogh’s stay in Auvers. The experiment, which began so promisingly in May, ended only 70 days later with Vincent’s self-inflicted death.
But in that time he had produced 73 canvasses, drawings and sketches, among them the most celebrated of his works. In 1990, a Japanese businessman bought one of Van Gogh’s two very similar portraits of the physician for 82 million dollars. The other portrait of Dr. Gachet hangs in the Musee d’Orsay, Paris.
The story of Vincent’s time in Auvers is told in a short but moving video presentation at the Auvers Tourist Bureau. The bureau is also the place to pick up the useful maps, setting out three itineraries that retrace Van Gogh’s footsteps. Vincent walked as passionately as he painted, and to cover the entire circuit would take some seven hours. This is one reason not to limit your stay in Avers to a single day. Another is that, by staying the night, you have the chance to see the village in the early morning light and in the evening when it is free of day trippers And the third is that even two days is barely enough in which to see all there is to see.
Visit the early 17th century Chateau d’Auvers, viewing a 90-minute multimedia journey into the world of the Impressionists and a 20-minute 3D film of Van Gogh’s last days in Auvers. The Chateau figured in one of Van Gogh’s paintings and it was within its park that the tormented artist fired a bullet into his own chest. He died two days later in his room in the Auberge, attended by Dr. Gachet.
Spend a moment in Vincent’s room and visit Dr. Gachet’s house, where Van Gogh often shared a meal with the family. Daubigny’s home and atelier, still occupied by Daubigny’s descendants, is open at certain times, too. (Daubigny and his son, the artist Karl Daubigny, helped by Corot and Daumier, decorated its interior walls as a rainy day project! Van Gogh had deeply admired Daubigny and became friendly with the artist’s widow. Van Gogh painted Daubigny’s house and garden more than once.
On my last morning in town I followed the steep road behind the Hostellerie, past the Romano-Gothic church Van Gogh made famous, to the cemetery where Vincent is buried. Theo lies next to him, their twin graves blanketed in ivy and marked by the simplest of headstones. Across the road, stretches a broad field with a reproduction of a Van Gogh landscape posted beside it, a painting he completed 15 days before he fired the fatal bullet. Only here did I fail to share the artist’s vision. I saw a newly planted field on a sunny morning; he saw crows descending on ripe wheat under a doom-laden sky. In a letter to Theo, Vincent wrote of the painting: “ I did not have to go out of my way to express sadness and extreme loneliness.”
GETTING THERE: A direct train from Paris to Avers operates weekends and holidays from the first weekend in April to the last weekend in October. Leaves Gare du Nord at 10:08 arrrives in Auvers at 10h43. Return leaves Auvers at 18h06, arrives Gare du ord at 18h39.
STAYING THERE: Joel Boilleaut’s Hostellerie du Nord has 8 individually decorated en suite rooms. The restaurant attracts food lovers from far and wide; book ahead.
To book hotel or restaurant visit the website: ww.hostelleriedunord.fr
AUVERS TOURIST BUREAU, rue de la Sansonne, Auvers-sur-Oise. www.auvers-sur-oise.com Open all year, Tuesday-Sunday and holidays (except Dec 25 and Jan 1) From April through October from 9:30 to 12:30 and from 14h to 18h ;from November to March from 9:30 to 12:30 and from 14h to 17h.