A Visit to the Auvers-Sur-Oise of Vincent Van Gogh

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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. …