Van Gogh in Auvers-sur-Oise — His Final Months
In the final months of his life, the troubled artist achieved a brilliant and under-regarded new stage of expression
This article is taken from the July 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
Van Gogh in Auvers-sur-Oise — His Final Months in Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum is devoted to the last ten weeks of the artist’s life. It’s a period that is often overlooked in surveys of his work, an epilogue rather than a finale. This absorbing exhibition sets the record straight.
It features several of Van Gogh’s most famous paintings, including his portrait of Dr Gachet  (the twin of which sold for $82.5 million in 1990, making it — at the time — the most expensive painting in the world). Yet what is remarkable about this display is how much of it is unfamiliar. Finally exposed to view are plenty of unfamiliar pictures, some of which had been hidden away in private collections for a lifetime.
For his countless fans, it is comforting to suppose that Van Gogh did his best work before he came to Auvers, in May 1890. It is some consolation to believe that when he died there, in July 1890, he had already peaked. These artworks refute that theory. They’re less arresting than the masterpieces he painted in Provence — the Sunflowers and the Starry Nights — but they are subtler, more complex. “This is a new phase in his artistry,” says the exhibition’s curator, Nienke Bakker.
Van Gogh crammed more work into a few years than most artists manage in a lifetime. No other artist has achieved so much in such a short time. His career lasted a mere ten years, from 1880 to 1890, and for the first five years, at least, his work was rudimentary. Virtually every picture of any note was painted during the last two years of his life. During his 70 days in Auvers he produced 74 paintings — a superhuman surge of productivity. There are 50 of these paintings in this show, almost all of them first rate.
This exhibition confirms that, far from tailing off, Van Gogh was only just getting started. Although he still couldn’t sell his work, he was attracting critical attention. After a decade of obscurity, he was on the verge of breaking through. If he hadn’t killed himself, aged 37, he could have lived for another 50 years. Who knows how many more masterpieces he might have produced?
Van Gogh arrived in Auvers on 20 May 1890, on a train from Paris (the journey, then as now, takes about an hour). The village and surrounding farmland were full of subjects for him to paint. In a letter to his younger brother Theo, he called it “gravely beautiful — distinctive and picturesque”.
Going there was Theo’s idea. An art dealer based in Paris, he had been bankrolling his big brother for ten years, ever since Vincent had decided to become an artist. In return for his generosity, Vincent had given Theo hundreds of unsellable paintings and an endless series of headaches. He’d spent the last year in an asylum, after cutting off his ear.
Theo loved Vincent, but he found him impossible to live with. He suggested Vincent stay with their mutual friend, the leading Impressionist painter, Camille Pissarro, who lived near Auvers. Pissarro was fond of Vincent, but he didn’t fancy living with him. He suggested Vincent stay in Auvers, with his friend and physician Dr Gachet. Dr Gachet didn’t want Vincent to lodge with him either, but he agreed to keep an eye on him, and so Theo rented an attic room for him in a cheap but cheerful auberge in Auvers.
Dr Gachet had a keen interest in mental illness and an even keener interest in art. A decent amateur artist and a discriminating art collector, he told Vincent the best cure for his “melancholia” was to throw himself into his work. Vincent took him at his word, churning out an average of a new painting per day — an extraordinary work rate. He was painting more than ever, and better than ever. He should have been happy here, so why did he choose to end it all? As with every suicide, there were many reasons, and none at all.
Recently married, with a wife and baby to support, Theo warned Vincent he wouldn’t be able to support him to the same extent in future. Did this news push him over the edge? Maybe. There are numerous other hypotheses, from hereditary insanity to syphilis, but in the end they’re all irrelevant. Vincent was incapable of lasting happiness. Even painting a masterpiece every day gave him no respite from the demons in his head.
On the evening of 27 July 1890, after completing his last picture, Tree Roots , Vincent walked into the wheatfields above the village (which had inspired some of his finest paintings) and shot himself in the chest. He staggered back to his attic room, where he was discovered by his landlord. Dr Gachet rushed to his bedside but was unable to save him. Vincent van Gogh died in the early hours of 29 July, with his faithful brother Theo by his side.
Set against this tragic story, it is tempting to look for signs of gloom and doom in Van Gogh’s paintings of Auvers, yet most of these bucolic landscapes betray scant indication of his inner angst. The darkest picture in the show, Wheatfield with Crows , is widely (and wrongly) assumed to be his final painting — thanks mainly to the Kirk Douglas movie Lust for Life. In fact, he painted 14 pictures thereafter, mostly full of life and hope.
The sleepy village of Auvers is an easy day trip from Paris. Judging from old photographs, it still looks much the same as it did in Van Gogh’s day. It attracts a steady stream of sightseers, but it’s not overrun with tourists. It still feels like a working community, rather than a theme park.
You can walk around the village, ticking off the sights in Van Gogh’s final paintings such as the thatched cottages and the little Hôtel de Ville. Dr Gachet’s house has been preserved, and so has the auberge where Van Gogh lived. I was afraid it would be full of knick-knacks, but it’s tastefully plain and simple. The attic room where Van Gogh died has been left completely bare.
Because Van Gogh had killed himself, he was refused a funeral in the local church  (the subject of one of his most celebrated paintings) so the funeral was held here in the auberge. There were dozens of paintings stacked up in his room — the paint still wet on some of them. Theo propped them up around the coffin. He gave some of them to mourners as mementoes.
After this ad hoc funeral the coffin was carried up to the cemetery, overlooking the wheatfields which Van Gogh had painted so many times. It’s a supremely peaceful spot, though windswept and rather desolate. Theo died of syphilis six months later and was buried in Utrecht, but in 1905 his widow Jo (who did so much to preserve and promote Vincent’s legacy) had him reburied in Auvers, alongside his beloved elder brother.
Auvers was the last stop in Van Gogh’s itinerant career, which had taken him from his birthplace in the Netherlands to Paris (as a failed art dealer), then to England (as an assistant teacher), then to Belgium (as a lay preacher) and then back to the Netherlands, where he began to paint. In 1886, back in Paris, he found his creative voice, and then in the South of France, in 1888, his art reached its dynamic climax. His was a lonely, restless life.
Paris and Provence get most of the attention — and now, thanks to this new exhibition, Auvers looks set to join them. No wonder the French regard Van Gogh as one of their own — the majority of his works (and almost all his greatest hits) were made in France. However, having seen where he ended up, I wanted to see where he came from and so I travelled on to Brabant, in the Netherlands, where he was born and raised.
My first stop was Nuenen, where Van Gogh produced a quarter of all his artworks, including his first masterpiece, The Potato Eaters. After a five-year apprenticeship, learning the rudiments of draughtsmanship from scratch, this powerful study of peasants eating a simple supper signalled his arrival as a proper artist. It’s now in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
There are no Van Gogh paintings in Nuenen (you have to travel to the Het Noordbrabants Museum, about 20 miles away, to see a modest selection) but Vincent’s brooding presence is still palpable in this quaint market town. His father was a Protestant pastor and the church where he preached is still there, immortalised in a rather austere picture, painted by Vincent as a present for his mother (now also in the Van Gogh Museum). You can see why these early works never sold — they’re terribly glum. It wasn’t until Vincent returned to Paris, in 1886, to live with Theo, that his palette brightened up.
I finished my Van Gogh pilgrimage in Zundert, the humdrum town where Vincent was born, in 1853. The house where he grew up is long gone. A bland modern cultural centre now stands on the same site. With no Van Gogh artworks to display, the curators have opted for an impressionistic evocation of his childhood. Projected onto a whitewashed wall, Vincent’s pensive face, taken from a photo when he was a schoolboy, stares back at you apprehensively — a portent of the tormented adult he would become.
My last stop in Zundert was the church where Vincent’s father was a pastor. Unlike most of the Netherlands, Zundert was predominantly Catholic, so Vincent and his family were outsiders of a sort. Did this sense of separation inform his depressive character? Or was it something more deep-seated? There was madness in the family. His youngest sister spent nearly 40 years in an asylum. His brother Cornelis may also have killed himself.
In the graveyard of the church in Zundert there is a macabre curiosity — the grave of Vincent van Gogh. Some visitors assume it’s the grave of the famous artist. The date upon the gravestone reveals their mistake. In fact, it’s the grave of the artist’s elder brother, who was given the same name, who was born and died in 1852, the year before his namesake was born.
What effect did this grave have on Vincent when he was a boy? He would have walked past it every Sunday when he followed his father into church. It must have haunted him to see his own name upon that gravestone — to think of the other Vincent, and the life he never lived. When Pissarro met Van Gogh, in 1887, he predicted he would “go mad or leave us far behind.” After Van Gogh died, Pissarro reflected, “little did I know he would do both”
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