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Van Gogh's Final Landscape

By Sarah Clayton
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 26, 1998


    real wheat field The wheat field in Auvers-sur-Oise from which van Gogh drew inspiration. (Sarah Clayton)
The wheat fields, drooping and swaying beneath the weight of their ripe, golden harvest, looked much as they had on July 27, 1890, when Vincent van Gogh walked into them and shot himself, dying two days later in his rented room at the Auberge Ravoux in the nearby village of Auvers-sur-Oise. At his side during those final days was his beloved brother, Theo, who is still at his side in the graveyard among the wheat fields, their simple headstones a poignant contrast to the heavily decorated tombs surrounding them.

Van Gogh had been staying in the village for the past 70 days, painting a canvas a day and fighting off the demons of depression that had plagued him throughout his 37 years. He came to Auvers at the recommendation of the painter Camille Pissarro, who had worked there and made the acquaintance of a Dr. Paul Gachet, a homeopathic doctor who Pissarro and Theo hoped could help van Gogh.

My family and I came here to escape the bustle of Paris, thick in the throes of its summer tourist season. Auvers, 22 miles north of Paris, was a cup of cool water to us--in four days, we saw only one tourist bus. Very few tourists at all, and no Americans. Of the 45,000 tourists who visit the town every year, 90 percent are French.

In its quiet simplicity, this quintessentially French village is a touching tribute to the tortured Dutch painter who thought he'd found a haven after his year in an asylum down south in Remy: "Auvers is very beautiful," van Gogh wrote to his brother in his earliest days there. ". . . Among other things a lot of old thatched roofs, which are getting rare . . . for really it is profoundly beautiful, it is the real country, characteristic and picturesque."

And it still is. The old part of the village--several rows of stone houses strung along the hillside, halfway between the river Oise below and the wheat fields above, is profoundly beautiful with its narrow, winding streets and red-tiled roofs warped with age, ancient stone buildings and, yes, still a few thatched roofs. The modern village is small and discreetly tucked along the banks of the river. But, young or old, the town bursts with bloom--flowers dripping from window boxes, trailing up walls, exploding forth from great pottery tubs.

Auvers begs you to tour it on foot, so infinite is the detail not to be missed. We started at the tourist office on Rue de la Sansonne, where we saw a short but affecting video on van Gogh and his life in Auvers. From here we walked across the street to the Auberge Ravoux, which was restored and opened to the public in 1993, the centenary of van Gogh's death.

Only a small group, 10 at most, is allowed at once up the stairs to van Gogh's last abode, so there was a very intimate feeling of connection, of treading where the tormented artist had trod, as we slowly and silently climbed the narrow wooden staircase, running our hands along the polished banister, knowing van Gogh's hand had been just where ours was, even as he, mortally wounded, pulled himself back up to his room to die.

There are two rooms at the top. The first, a small 10-foot-square garret whose ceiling follows the slant of the roof, was van Gogh's, bare save for a chair and a pall of gray light filtering through a skylight. In its dark simplicity, it felt more like a crypt than a bedroom, and our group filed silently past, communing with the unmistakable sense of the tortured artist that lingered there.

The second room along the passage, larger and more graciously furnished, had belonged to another Dutch painter, Anton Hirschig, who'd heard van Gogh's agonized moans the night he'd returned wounded to his room, and had alerted Dr. Gachet. Gachet had taken van Gogh under his wing from the moment the painter arrived at Auvers on May 20, 1890. One of van Gogh's best-known paintings from this era is of the doctor leaning heavily on his right arm, looking plaintively out at the viewer. The painting sold for $82.5 million in 1990.

In a letter to Theo, van Gogh reported that "I have seen Dr. Gachet, who gives me the impression of being rather eccentric, but his experience as a doctor must keep him balanced enough to combat the nervous trouble from which he certainly seems to me to be suffering at least as seriously as I."

It was Gachet who contacted Theo in Paris and told him that his brother was dying, and who, with Theo, kept vigil over van Gogh while his life slipped away. In van Gogh's pocket after his death was a letter to Theo: "There are many things I should like to write you about, but I feel it is useless."

From Hirschig's room, we moved into a small carpeted theater and saw a moving 15-minute film on van Gogh's works painted during his time at Auvers reflected against their modern setting in the town, fields and gardens all around.

Downstairs is the restaurant where van Gogh ate many of his meals, often amusing the innkeeper's 2-year-old daughter afterward with sketches. On the morning of his death, his body was laid out on a table in a simple wake.

The room has been restored to look as it would have then, and is utterly charming with its simple wooden tables, electrified period gas lamps and pewter counter top. It is still open for business, and offers two prix fixe three-course meals for $30 and $40, respectively, of traditional French cuisine and local wines.

We'd only planned to visit Auvers for a day but, in the end, came back four days in a row, so compelling was the place as a quiet respite from Paris. It is a charming village in its own right and a dignified shrine to an artist who sold only one painting during his lifetime, but whose paintings now command more money than any other artist, living or dead, and who remains the most popular artist of all time. The 70 paintings van Gogh completed while in Auvers are today worth more than $1 billion.

The first artist to "discover" Auvers was Charles Francois Daubigny in the 1850s; his work represented the transition between the School of Barbizon and impressionism. Pissarro and Cezanne also worked here at different times while Renoir, Monet, Dupre, Corot, Daumier and others lived and worked in various neighboring towns, often coming to Auvers to visit or paint.

We visited Daubigny's restored home, now a museum to his and his family's art and a thoroughly charming place. The flower-wreath frescoes he painted around the wall of his daughter's bedroom are intact. The garden is as unpretentious and inviting as the house, and makes for a quiet, peaceful place for a picnic lunch.

We also enjoyed the Chateau d'Auvers and its much-touted "Journey Into the Impressionists' Era," a 90-minute multimedia exhibit and tour that attempts to re-create the world of the Impressionists in 1870. Equipped with headsets, we went from room to room--there are 10 in all, each with a particular theme. In one we were invited to sit at small cafe tables in a mock Victorian music hall to enjoy a typical show of the era through animated figures and recorded music, then--more interestingly--a talk on how the camera affected the painting techniques of the impressionists.

In another room, we sat in a period train car and through the window watched the landscape as the impressionists saw it from the windows of the train that took them to Auvers. Their artworks were then flashed on the screen to show how they'd interpreted their visions onto canvas. Another room was devoted entirely to women's clothing of the day, with an enlightening lecture not only on how the impressionists rendered cloth and clothing but also on the lives of the laundresses who washed these clothes.

Technologically, it was a spectacular show, and there was much to learn from it. But the grounds of the chateau, with its maze, formal gardens and espaliered pear trees, appealed to us as much--maybe even more--than the interior. And we all agreed that the simplicity of van Gogh's room and the moving evocation of his world at Auvers through the film there were much more powerful.

Halfway between van Gogh's room and the chateau is the whimsical and charming Musee de l'Absinthe, the main room of which is a recreated turn-of-the-century bar, complete with a wind-up Victrola bleating out its tinny, irresistible music. On the walls are posters from the era and copies of paintings by famous artists (including Picasso's "Bouteille de Pernod et Verre" and "La Buveuse d'Absinthe") depicting the ritual of drinking absinthe, and poems lauding its qualities.

The shelves behind the bar are filled with the paraphernalia for serving absinthe--soda water is poured down onto it through a sugar cube resting on an ornate sievelike spoon balanced over the top of the tall wide glass. At least I think it is. Unfortunately, all the explanatory placards throughout the museum were in French and, although the very pleasant woman at the entrance gave us a sheet in English on the basic history of absinthe, I felt we missed a lot by not being able to read the more detailed explanations.

Absinthe had been a medicinal herb since ancient times, but it began to infiltrate society as a drink only at the end of the 18th century, when the French troops stationed in north Africa began adding it to their water to combat dysentery. They enjoyed it so much that they continued its use upon returning to France. By 1860 it was the national drink of France and enjoyed a close association with the artists of the day, who called it their "green muse." Oscar Wilde was known to quip that "absinthe makes the heart grow fonder."

Finally, in response to a rising tide of alcoholism, the French Academy of Medicine in 1915 condemned all drinks made from plant extracts--especially absinthe. And the rest, as they say, is history, contained in this delightful little museum.

We'd saved our final day in Auvers for walking around to the various sights committed to canvas by the late-19th-century artists who lived or visited there. Most, of course, were van Gogh's. At each sight is a reproduction of the artist's work so the viewer can see how things have changed--or not.

We wandered through the town first, finding bits and pieces of buildings or winding lanes, even a tree in a painting still there in real life. The town hall is almost exactly the same, even down to the same style concrete dividers between the street and the parking lot.

But it was out in the wheat fields that we found the most similarities between the artist's view and the scene before us. On June 17, just over a month before he killed himself, van Gogh wrote to Paul Gauguin: "I am trying to do some studies of wheat--nothing but ears of wheat with green-blue stalks, long leaves like ribbons of green shot with pink, ears that are just turning yellow, edged with the pale pink of the dusty bloom."

The days passed and the call of the demons grew louder and the wheat ripened into its deep, golden yellow. Van Gogh kept painting like a man possessed and writing to his brother, Theo. This one from July l0: "I generally try to be fairly cheerful, but my life is also threatened at the very root, and my steps are wavering. . . . I have painted three more big canvases since. They are vast fields of wheat under troubled skies, and I did not need to go out of my way to express sadness and extreme loneliness."

The skies were troubled, too, the day we visited van Gogh's wheat fields--dark and roiling over the swaying wheat. The reproduction of van Gogh's "Wheatfields With Crows" was there, and the scene before us unchanged. Even to the crows, swooping down on this abundant provender.

We stopped, once more, at Vincent's and Theo's graves, where people had left stalks of wheat in homage, then wound our way down from the plateau to the church of Notre Dame, made famous by van Gogh's painting. (The church refused van Gogh a funeral service because he'd taken his own life.) The 12th- and 13th-century building looked exactly the same; it even had people hurrying along the path around its side. Realizing that a service was about to begin, we entered the hushed, humid interior and took seats.

There was no choir, but recorded music made a soothing substitute. There were no hymnals or missals, only printed sheets--all in French, of course, the only part of which we recognized being "Notre Pere" ("Our Father"). But the priest had a pleasant demeanor, and we had an hour to sit and commune with the ancient stones, and the spirit of van Gogh that one always feels in this unheralded village.

After the service, a middle-age man struck up conversation with us. He was a doctor and lived nearby--would we like to come back with him for a visit? We agreed and soon found ourselves in the overgrown but enchanting garden of a ruined 11th-century castle that abutted his Victorian house.

We came across his wife in an extraordinary barnyard reminiscent of a scene out of Thomas Hardy, with its inquisitive goats leaping about the tumbled-down stone walls, and ducks and chickens scratching around woven baskets and pole fences rubbed shiny with age. There was even a horse, white and temperamental, whose stable was a 900-year-old cellar.

Later we sat out in the garden with our new friends, sipping a local wine and watching the sun set on the square tower of the church, as the crows beat low over the wheat fields.

It was July 29--107 years after van Gogh had died here, and it seemed almost sacrilegious to be having such a good time in a place that had seen such pain and despair.

Sarah Clayton is a freelance writer in Rockbridge Baths, Va.

Details: Van Gogh in Auvers

Getting There: Auvers-sur-Oise is about 20 miles north of Paris. From the Gare du Nord or Gare Saint-Lazare, take the train to Pontoise and change to Auvers. A reduced-rate ticket (about $14) is available from the stations' banlieue (suburban) ticket windows. It includes round-trip train fare and admission to the "Voyage au Temps des Impressionnistes" ("Journey Into the Impressionists' Era") exhibit at the Chateau d'Auvers.

Where to Stay: There are no hotels in Auvers-sur-Oise. For a list of bed-and-breakfasts in the area, contact the local tourism office (see below).

Where to Eat: The Auberge Ravoux (52 Rue du General Leclerc, telephone 011-33-1-34-48-05-47) is still open for business, and offers two prix fixe three-course meals for $30 and $40, respectively, of traditional French cuisine and local wines.

What to Do:

  • Maison de van Gogh, Place de la Mairie, Auvers-sur-Oise, telephone 011-33-1-34-48-05-47. Open every day but Monday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is about $4.40.

  • Atelier Daubigny, rue Daubigny, Auvers-sur-Oise, telephone 011-33-1-34-48-03-03. Open every day but Monday, Easter to October, 2 to 6:30 p.m. Admission is about $3.50.

  • Musee de l'Absinthe, 44 Rue Calle, Auvers-sur-Oise, telephone 011-33-1-30-36-83-26. Open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekends year-round, and Wednesday-Sunday from June to September. Admission is about $1.75.

  • "Voyage au Temps des Impressionnistes" at the Chateau d'Auvers (telephone 011-33-1-34-48-48-48) is open every day but Monday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. from May to October, and 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. from November to April. Admission is about $11.50.

    Information: French Government Tourist Office, 202-659-7779,, or L'Office de Tourisme D'Auvers, Rue de la Sansonne, Auvers-sur-Oise, 95430, France, telephone 011-33-1-30- 36-10-06. Or check http://www. on the Web (in French only).

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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