Vincent traveled to Auvers-sur-Oise, a village northwest of Paris very popular with the artists of that time, following the suggestion of Camille Pissarro, his old friend. "Having come back here, I am back at work, though the paintbrush is falling from my hands". In this work "the village church at Auvers" Vincent achieved exactly what he wrote to his sister Wilhelmina a year before: "I don't know if you understand that I can say poetry just by arranging colors, the way one can say consoling things in music, the way the bizarre, studied and multiple lines winding in all the painting should not give a vulgar resemblance but draw the subject like in a dream, similar in character yet stranger than reality". So, the strange perspective, the snaking lines, the exaggerated forms and colors are all intentional and give this work a tremendous surreal and mystical quality.
Vincent's Last 70 Days: an Ode to Fraternity
As a lifelong student of art, I always wondered what happened to Vincent Van Gogh in those fateful last days in Auvers. You notice that he painted almost one painting a day here, whereas his previous record in Arles and Saint Remy was one or two per month. It was as if he was feeling time was running out. Yet here he found a real friend, a certain Dr. Gachet, who cared for him body and soul, who encouraged and understood his work and who, in Vincent's own words, not only resembled him physically but was as "deranged" as himself. In fact you won't find a single original painting by Van Gogh in Auvers, Dr. Gachet's collection, donated by his son, being in the Orsay museum in Paris. That collection includes Vincent's famous portrait of Dr. Gachet, and we see indeed the resemblance in the doctor's sad blue eyes, sandy hair and lean body. In a letter to brother Theo, Vincent wrote about "the amiable eccentric" Dr. Gachet: "He lost his wife some years ago, but he is very much a doctor and his vocation and his faith keep him going. We are already great friends. I am working on his portrait: the head with a white cap, very fair, very light, the hands also a flesh tint, a blue frock coat and a cobalt blue background, leaning on a red table." Later he wrote of this blue background that he gave to his portraits: "it was to give them a sense of mysterious eternity".
His stay in Auvers from 20th May to 27th July 1890 was to be the last brief act of his life, yet he is ever present in all corners of the town, from his squalid attic room in the Auberge Ravoux that resembles a prison cell to the places where he planted his easel; the famous steps "l'Escalier d'Auvers", the church at Auvers, the house of the painter Daubigny, the house of Dr. Gachet, and the immense field where he painted his "Wheat field with Crows" are all scenes of these tragic last days. In this wheat field painting the earth seems on fire, the sky is caught in tempest and the blackbirds seem to hover over death like so many vultures. Walking on the stones of the narrow path that leads from the town towards this field where he ended his own life, I could feel the pain, the struggle and the loneliness that he must have felt both painting this field and shooting himself; he narrowly missed his heart, and he had to bear more agony again before finally surrendering his soul, setting it free from a body and mind that tortured him all his life. "I cannot say what it is that is enclosing me, imprisoning me, seeming to enslave me, but I have a feeling of prison bars, grills, bars..." he wrote in a letter to Theo. And you can feel those bars enclosing his portraits, his fields, and his landscapes. But then again the same bars whirl through the sky, charged with energy, reaching for the unknown, attempting the impossible.
What led Vincent on this glorious yet tragic path in life that was to reach its climax in Auvers-sur-Oise? Vincent aspired at two things in his life, and he actually achieved them without realizing it: the tragedy lies precisely there.
He had always wanted to live in God's Love. A profound believer, the son of a Protestant minister, he developed a strong religious knowledge studying theology in Amsterdam, and later became a preacher in a poor mining community in 1879. He deeply aspired to being admitted to the Kingdom of Heaven, as taught by Jesus in his sermon on the mount that he cites incessantly in his letters: "blessed are those who..." He wanted to be blessed like the poor, so he literally gave away everything even his warm clothes to the poor, while portraying their misery as an act of love. This decided him to become a painter, and from here the evangelist artist was born. But at the same time the effects of severe poverty eroded his health, both mentally and physically, and resulted in his dismissal as a preacher, which was not his first failure, nor his last.
Yet Vincent was not poor in spirit. His letters and his art show an acute mind capable of deep insights, but taking up drinking (he apparently mixed absinthe, turpentine and other alcoholic drinks) for sure exacerbated his irrational and erratic behavior that was to destroy his friendships as well as his health in a spiral of despair that led finally to his suicide.
His second aspiration, very connected to the first and sometimes in contradiction with it, was to make something of his life on earth, which in the last ten years concentrated on taking the art of painting even further from the already innovating Impressionists, his contemporaries. In his letters of August 1888 to Emile Bernard from Arles he wrote: "Everything I learned in Paris is disappearing and I am coming back to the ideas I had in the countryside before meeting the Impressionists. My way of doing things is more inspired by Delacroix than theirs. Instead of painting exactly what is in front of my eyes, I use color in a more arbitrary manner to express myself strongly." In another letter to Theo from Arles in September 1888: "I wish to express the love of two lovers by the marriage of two complementary colors, their mixture, their opposition, and by the mysterious vibration of similar tones."
The sad truth is that, although he believed himself to be a failure in both aspirations, he in fact had achieved both in a short lifetime of 37 years. God must have loved him: he was blessed with a strong faith in God, had a devoted brother like Theo, showed a brilliant talent for painting, was gifted with a bright mind and a heart of gold. He had achieved everything he wanted in his paintings; they are poignant and eternal poems expressed in simple colors and forms. But for all this achievement he felt only failure and guilt because he could not support himself with his work (he sold only one painting in his lifetime).
For sure he felt imprisoned by life, by his past, by his upbringing, his unruliness, and numerous illnesses (including syphilis that he contracted in brothels in Montmartre and to which he even exposed his brother Theo). He strove for freedom, finding solace in his work. But he couldn't find enough consolation, neither in his work nor in the fraternal love of Theo, who not only supported him materially but encouraged him throughout his life.
His drinking, in a vain effort to cope, brought on his famous rages during one of which he attacked his friend Gauguin with a razor but that was in Arles, prior to his trip to Auvers. Feeling guilty for loosing his friend's esteem, you have this other strange episode of him cutting off his ear and sending it in an envelope to a prostitute. It is suggested that perhaps this strong feeling of guilt in him started early in life, since he was born exactly a year after a stillborn brother who was also called Vincent and whose tomb was right beside his parents’ house.
Just after his move to Auvers he made a short trip to Paris to stay with Theo and his wife, and his disagreement with the latter was perhaps the last straw. He always felt guilty of being a burden on Theo his brother, his best friend and his only anchor of attachment in life. Without Theo's support, the world would have not known Vincent. His letter to Theo shows his recognition: "You are good for painters and I want you to know that the more I think, the more I feel that there is nothing more artistic than loving people."
After his attempt on his own life, Vincent lay in a state of atrocious agony in his cell-bedroom, but our guide reassured us: "he was calm because Theo rushed to his side the next day and held him in his arms until his death a day later". Vincent was spared the last tragedy to feel guilty about: the death of Theo, only six months after his own, from a heart attack.
To see the two of them now united is very moving; when we stood by Vincent and Theo's graves our guide explained that the ivy that had grown over both tombs joining them into one was not a sign of neglect but a symbol of love and attachment.
Auvers is covered with ivy and flowers; as Corot said, it is a beautiful place, or even a "terribly beautiful place" as Vincent put it. This untouched countryside, so close yet so far, was destined to become a place of creativity and friendship for many great figures of art who converged there (Corot, Daumier, Daubigny, Gauguin, Cézanne and Pissarro). But the most powerful impact was left by the fraternity that unites the siblings, Vincent and Theo, in this life and the next.
Art Lovers' Paris
September 25, 2001