Van Gogh's Legacy
Auvers-sur-Oise is a town of ghosts. Among the summer tourists and art-loving pilgrims who visit Auvers from all over the world drift long-dead artists with folding easels and boxes of paints, who a century ago would disembark every week at the small railway station. Some are admiringly remembered: Cézanne, Corot, Pissarro. Others, such as Charles-François Daubigny, in his day the most celebrated artist of all, are now little more than a footnote in the history of art and a bronze bust in the town center.
Down the winding streets or on the river bank, by the towering church or in the sober graveyard, visitors can sense these anxious ghosts in oil-smeared smocks trying to draw their attention to a field, a tree, a house that once captured the painterly eye and, in spite of two World Wars and countless real-estate developers, still stands seemingly immutable. Above all, however, the presence most strongly felt is that of an anguished and impoverished visionary who came to Auvers in the spring of 1890 and died 10 weeks later from a self-inflicted gun wound: Vincent van Gogh.
Van Gogh arrived in Auvers looking for a place to work and to free himself from the nightmares of the asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence to which, suffering from hallucinatory fits, he had chosen to commit himself a year earlier. Theo, his beloved brother, had suggested Auvers not only because it was a well-known artists' colony but because (as Pissarro had told him) here lodged the art-loving Dr. Paul Ferdinand Gachet, an amateur painter and homeopathic physician, who could look after him and follow his convalescence. Van Gogh found cheap lodgings at the Café de la Mairie (today renamed Auberge Ravoux after its then owner), where for three francs fifty a day he had a small room under the rafters and three meals a day. The only cure for his hallucinations, the doctor assured him, was to paint.
On Sunday, July 27, Van Gogh left the café after lunch carrying his paint box and easel. He returned late and went straight to his room. When the charitable patron, Arthur Gustave Ravoux, came up to see him, he found the painter in bed, covered in blood. Van Gogh told him that he had shot himself, so that "the misery won't carry on forever." Theo arrived the next day and for many long hours sat by his brother's side. For a while, the painter seemed to have recovered; he talked lucidly and smoked his pipe. Then, barely two days later, on July 29 at 1:30 in the morning, he died.
Van Goh's room is today a dignified memorial. Hidden above the restaurant, up rickety wooden stairs, there is little except bare walls. Many visitors expect to see the bed and chair rendered famous in his paintings, but these belonged to other rooms, one in Arles being the most well-known. Visitors are thus forced to furnish the room in their imagination, to seek (as in the Auvers landscape) the correspondence between what's tangible and the shapes and colors conjured up in Van Gogh's work.
The auberge, bought a few years ago by Dominique-Charles Janssens, has become a first-class restaurant and an obligatory stopping place for admirers of Van Gogh. Restored to look as it did in Van Gogh's day, the auberge serves superb French home cooking in a friendly, unpretentious atmosphere. This is due to Janssens' attention to detail, from the welcoming tea-towel table coverings to the cast-iron marmites in which the main courses are served.
Janssens, who has dedicated his life to preserving Van Gogh's final lodgings, arrived in Auvers literally by accident: In 1985, as he was driving to Paris, a drunk driver hit him from behind, landing Janssens in the hospital for over a month. After reading in the police report that the accident had taken place in Auvers-sur-Oise, 20 miles north of Paris, Janssens learned of the village's connection to Van Gogh. The curiosity became an obsession: Janssens bought the auberge and, after years of bureaucratic haggling with the French government, managed to transform the Auberge Ravoux into one of the most successful places of its kind in the world. He also is raising millions to purchase an original Van Gogh, which he plans to hang in the memorial room. A recently published illustrated book, Van Gogh's Table at the Auberge Ravoux, by Alexandra Leaf and Fred Leeman, pays homage to Janssens' endeavors and to the old-fashioned gastronomy of the auberge.
Set in the heart of Auvers-sur-Oise on the road to the train station, the auberge now welcomes the traveler with the same unaffected, reassuring façade it showed a century ago. The small vestibule has had countless layers of paint peeled off to reveal the lime green original, which (according to the village elders) was a color used in the old days to keep the flies away. The landing of the staircase displays a tiny window opening through which the patron, busy at the counter, could make sure that customers did not sneak women up to their rooms. And the restaurant itself is a warm, congenial place, with no-nonsense tables and chairs, bottles of wine and carafes of water straight out of an Impressionist canvas.
The young chef, Christophe Bony, born in the region and not spoiled by having worked at the three-Michelin-starred Arpège in Paris, has gone back to the headwaters of French peasant cooking and returned with the real thing: roast chicken, fish stew, garlic potatoes. The "seven-hour" lamb, the auberge's signature dish, is marinated for a day in herbs and wine, browned, then braised in the oven for three hours (reduced from the original seven). The final result is so tender it can be eaten (as the French say) à la cuillère—with a spoon. When legendary chef Paul Bocuse, a forefather of nouvelle cuisine, dined here for the first time, in 1996, he lifted the lid of his marmite and, inhaling the scented cloud that emerged from the lamb, exclaimed: "This is what cooking is all about!"
Janssens put equal care into the restoration of the building itself. He found a Turkish artisan capable of creating fixtures that could combine the soft light of oil lamps with the requirements of the French Electrical Board. He hired the company that had worked on preserving the prehistoric cave paintings of Lascaux to eliminate the mold in the walls of the auberge. After the costly restorations were completed, in 1993, an elderly visitor inquired when Janssens was going to "start the renovation." The question, he felt, was proof that he had succeeded in his memorial.
Auvers is full of memorials. Not only the small museums, the painters' lodgings, the names scattered here and there on street signs, parks and cafés, but also the landscape itself, a Van Gogh canvas come alive. Fittingly, it is around the village cemetery that this landscape is best preserved: The trees bend with the vibrant curves of his brush strokes, the clouds mirror the clouds in his electric skies, the grain fields seem to have remained untilled since the afternoon when he last painted them, menaced by crows and an advancing storm. Any visitor to Auvers who has looked carefully at a Van Gogh cannot doubt Oscar Wilde's dictum that life imitates art.
Surrounded by a stone wall, the centuries-old cemetery is now visited mainly by Van Gogh's admirers, who place flowers, letters, poems and many other offerings on his discreet tomb and on that of his brother Theo, who died six months after he did. It was here that, on July 30, a small group of friends surrounded Theo as the body of his brother was lowered into the grave. Earlier that day, the body had been laid out at the auberge. Dr. Gachet, as a final homage to the artist, surrounded the coffin with sunflowers and with his patient's canvases. There were many, since Van Gogh, kept from starvation by his brother's small allowance, had difficulty selling his paintings during his life and gave many of them away. Almost a century later, Van Gogh's "Sunflowers" would be sold for close to $40 million at Christie's in London.
A short distance from the cemetery, overlooking the village, is the church of Auvers. Because Van Gogh had committed suicide, the clergy would not allow his funeral to take place inside the building he had so lovingly painted. As we view the church today, Van Gogh's vision superimposes itself on the straight lines and ochre hues of the stone, lending it colors and a movement that we might not perceive without his aid. Describing his famous painting of the church (now in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris), Van Gogh wrote to his sister that he thought its color was "more expressive, more sumptuous" than in his earlier sketches of other buildings. It is that sumptuous expressiveness that now overwhelms the viewer standing in front of what would otherwise appear as a quite ordinary French country church.
Cemetery, church, the town itself, with its winding streets, shaded lanes and lush riverbanks, offer a pleasant confusion between past and present. With the exception perhaps of its seventeenth-century castle (an imposing confection that tries to attract tourists with a Disneyfied multimedia presentation, Journey to the Age of the Impressionists), Auvers is something of a time machine, transporting the visitor to a moment in which a group of painters seems suddenly to have rediscovered the meaning of color. Here is the knot of houses behind a now-vanished thatched cottage that Van Gogh painted shortly after arriving. Here is the house of the good Dr. Gachet, whose steps bore the tread of most visiting artists. Here is Daubigny's studio with its impressive murals by Corot and Daubigny himself. And the village itself remains peaceful (in spite of traffic), uncluttered (in spite of tourists), full of the particular light Van Gogh sought to reflect in his luminous canvases.
It seems unnecessary (or worse, futile) to add a comment to the countless articles, biographies, essays, novels and even songs and films that have been produced in an attempt to explain the work of Van Gogh. What prevented his contemporaries from seeing what we now see, the genius that became so astonishingly clear immediately after his death? What is it that so moves viewers from East and West, of all ages and backgrounds, who look upon his fields and skies and gnarled houses and faces burning with color? In one of his letters to Theo, trying to come to terms with the pain of his mental state, Van Gogh wrote: "Madness might be a healthy thing in that one becomes, perhaps, less exclusive." He could have gone further. He could have said that madness (which the Greeks believed was the terrible gift the gods bestowed on their chosen ones) had granted him—albeit through horrible suffering—the power to see everything, to exclude nothing, but rather, through his art, to include us all, fellow humans, in his agonizing vision.
Alberto Manguel is the author of 20 books, most recently Reading Pictures.