Van Gogh in Auvers-sur-Oise
On 17 May 1890, Van Gogh arrived in Paris after a year's stay in a psychiatric hospital in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, where he was voluntarily committed after several bouts of insanity.
On 20 May, he moved to Auvers-sur-Oise, a village about 30 kilometres north of Paris, where Dr Paul Gachet, a doctor specialising in depression, lived.
For 70 days, alternating between confidence and despair, he frantically painted and drew 74 pictures and numerous drawings, produced his first engraving.
On 27 July, in the middle of a field, he shot himself with a pistol and died on 29 July in his room at the Auberge Ravoux.
This is the first exhibition of its kind devoted to the artist's final months.
Dr Paul Gachet, doctor, collector and amateur painter
Paul Gachet (1828 - 1909) wrote his medical thesis on melancholy in 1858. In 1872, he bought a house in Auvers-sur-Oise where he hosted Cézanne, Guillaumin and Pissarro.
A non-conformist spirit and an early practitioner of homeopathy, Gachet welcomed Van Gogh as a friend as well as a patient. The painter first had lunch at his house every Sunday. He painted his portrait, bouquets, garden views and, finally, his daughter Marguerite. Thanking him for his care, he gifted him paintings.
As an amateur painter and engraver under the pseudonym of Paul van Ryssel, Gachet gave Van Gogh the opportunity to engrave and print his first and only etching at his home.
After Vincent's death, Theo gave him a number of paintings in gratitude for the support he had given his brother.
Between 1949 and 1954, his children Paul and Marguerite Gachet donated nine paintings, drawings, the engraving plate, the palette used for Marguerite's portrait, and objects painted by the artist to the Louvre.
Auvers-sur-Oise, a picturesque village
In 1890, Auvers-sur-Oise was a town of 2,000 inhabitants, made up of various agricultural hamlets stretching for almost 10 kilometres along the Oise River.
An hour's train ride north from Paris, the village attracted many city dwellers, such as Dr Gachet, who built new residences there. Their modern buildings contrasted with the old thatched cottages, which had been outlawed following a fire in 1879 and which moved Van Gogh because they reminded him of his native Brabant.
The village also welcomed many painters. Charles-François Daubigny settled there in 1861, his widow opened her garden to Van Gogh. Cézanne, Pissarro and a host of other artists, many of them foreigners, came here in search of the picturesque landscape of the Île-de-France region, bathed by the Oise River, with its houses rising up the hillside, between woods and fields.
"Auvers is seriously beautiful..."
On his arrival, Van Gogh declared himself charmed by the village and its surroundings: "There is a lot of well-being in the air. " As recommended by Dr Gachet, he "threw himself into his work", to "distract himself", forget his illness and the threat of a relapse.
Settled in the Auberge Ravoux, opposite the town hall, in the centre of the village, he painted within a limited radius and took up all sorts of subjects, freely interpreting the reality of the place.
He adopted a strictly regulated life, getting up and going to bed early, painting outdoors in the morning and retouching his paintings in the afternoon, in a room made available to painters by Ravoux. But he avoided the company of passing artists, seeming to seek solitude and to flee from anything that might divert him from painting.
Letters from Auvers
Van Gogh's correspondence covers some 20 years of his life and includes 820 letters in his own handwriting, four-fifths of which are addressed to his brother Theo,written in French from 1886 onwards.
At Auvers-sur-Oise, Van Gogh wrote regularly to Theo despite their geographical proximity, to his sister Willemien, to his mother and to Gauguin.
24 letters from this period have survived.
They describe his daily life, his material needs, his meetings and, succintly, his paintings. They express his expectations of Theo, his growing anxiety, first tentatively, then more openly.
Six were never sent. His drafts often reveal Vincent's hesitations about writing as a practice.
His first letter and his last, in its unsent version, are offered here for reading, as well as other extracts from this correspondence.
Bouquets and plant studies
In Auvers-sur-Oise, Van Gogh painted 9 still lifes of flowers, probably with the intention of selling or giving them away. Their production spans from his arrival in mid-May to mid-June.
Several of them were painted at Dr Gachet's house, and thus interact with paintings from his collection, notably those by Cezanne.
Most of them are small, exercises in speed, but some have the ambitious format of his floral still lifes from Arles or Saint-Rémy.
All these bouquets are striking for the boldness of their highly evident gesture, a very simple composition playing on the geometry of the table and the vases, with unpretentious arrangements of wild flowers.
The Modern portraiture
Painting people is "the only thing in painting that moves me to the deepest extent and makes me feel the infinite, more than anything else."
Van Gogh's ambition was to achieve in his models "that indefinable eternity, of which the halo used to be the symbol, and which we try to achieve through the radiance itself, through the vibrancy of our colouration." Exalting their character through colour, giving his canvases the expressiveness of the passions that inhabit them, this is what constitutes "modern portraiture".
But in Auvers, as before, he had difficulty finding models, except in his immediate circle: Gachet, his daughter Marguerite, the daughter of his innkeeper, Adeline Ravoux, various children and two unidentified young women.
In these portraits, he sometimes conducts astonishing formal experiments, such as the square format, the weave-like backgrounds, the tone-on-tone colour schemes, and drawing simplified to the extreme.
As soon as he arrived in Auvers-sur-Oise, full of renewed energy, Van Gogh asked Theo for paper. He began experimenting with drawings heightened with a blue oil brush, mixed with watercolour, on grey-blue or pinkish paper. Pen and ink are mixed with black, blue or brown chalk, or with pencil. Ever more experimental, he produced astonishing scribbles and fleeting notations with dazzlingly vivid results.
Nine large sheets show views of the village or the surrounding fields, while the 48 illustrated pages of a notebook and a sketchbook reveal his curiosity for people and animals, capturing unexpected details.
With these drawings, Van Gogh kept himself busy between paintings, changing his mind while remaining active, as if to ward off a fear of emptiness or of an ever-impending crisis.
The heart of the countryside, distinctive and picturesque...
Of the 74 canvases painted in Auvers, about 20 are devoted to "natural" landscapes, with few or no houses, many of them painted on the plateau above the village. Most of them were painted during the second half of Van Gogh's stay in Auvers. These views of fields, where plots of cereals, cabbage, alfalfa, beetroot and potatoes are juxtaposed, are rarely accompanied by figures of farm workers, even though they must have been plentiful in that season. This is probably a sign of Van Gogh's desire to express his feeling of solitude.
The double-square format
Among the 74 paintings produced in Auvers are 13 canvases in the "double square" format, 12 very different landscapes and one portrait in an elongated format of 50 x 1 meter, unique in Van Gogh's oeuvre. The exhibition brings together 11 of these works for the first time.
This ensemble is all the more significant in that it features a format deliberately chosen by the artist rather than a commercial one, and includes his last three paintings.
They were produced in a period of just over a month, between 20 June and the painter's death: this is not a series painted in a creative rush, but a considered, reworked, in-depth exploration.
Was he aiming for a decorative ensemble constituting a long frieze, or was it the basis for a personal exhibition project, as Van Gogh suggested on 10 June, 1890?
These canvases undoubtedly represent a multiplicity of formal explorations of great freedom, by an artist on the threshold of a "new painting".
Rapid and explosive recognition
On the news of Van Gogh's death on 29 July 1890, Theo was inundated with letters of condolence from the two brothers' painter friends. Far from the myth of the cursed artist, they showed that Vincent was a painter recognised by his peers, celebrated by some critics, with several exhibitions to his credit and who had sold his first painting in February.
Theo immediately set up a first exhibition in his flat, while Gachet, who was deeply affected, planned an illustrated monograph and commissioned his pupil Blanche Derousse to make reproduction engravings.
Émile Bernard, undoubtedly Van Gogh's closest friend, published his letters to him in 1893.
When Theo died of syphilis, six months after his brother’s death, in February 1891, his widow Johanna (1862-1925) worked to have her brother-in-law's paintings and letters that she had inherited published and made known. Theo's son Vincent (1890-1978) founded the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in 1973, but, by the time of the First World War, Van Gogh was already clearly recognised as a protagonist of modern art.
The Death of Van Gogh
On the evening of Sunday 27 July, Van Gogh shot himself in the chest in the hills above Auvers. Wounded but conscious, he managed to get back down to the Auberge Ravoux. The local doctor, Dr Mazery, and then Dr Gachet were called to his bedside but declared him untransportable and inoperable. They call Theo, who arrives the next day. Van Gogh died on the June 29 at about 1.30 am.
He was buried on 30 July, surrounded by villagers, a few painter friends from Paris, such as Emile Bernard, Charles Laval, Lucien Pissarro, and Julien Tanguy, as well as Theo and his brother-in-law Andries Bonger.
Van Gogh, who had suffered 7 or 8 bouts of dementia in the previous 18 months, attempted to poison himself several times during these episodes, and had suicidal thoughts between them. While they were absent in Auvers, he lived in fear of their return.
Van Gogh had long suffered from depression - "melancholia" - which was exacerbated by the failure of his plan for an artists' community following Gauguin's departure from Arles at the end of December 1888. The birth of his nephew Vincent, as well as Theo's desire to set up his own business, made him feel a burden to his brother. It is also possible that he was aware of Theo's syphilis and the inevitable end of his support.
Van Gogh in Auvers-sur-Oise in film
Literature delved into Van Gogh's life story as early as 1934, but it was cinema that has been the most powerful agent in transforming the artist's figure into a myth.
The last period in Auvers-sur-Oise, with the most dramatic element of all, the painter's suicide, has been of particular interest to filmmakers.
Vincente Minnelli drew the material for the first fictional film about the painter, Lust for Life (1956), played by Kirk Douglas, from Irving Stone's bestseller of the same name (1936).
But it was a director trained as a painter, Maurice Pialat, who made the Auvers period the subject of an entire film, soberly entitled Van Gogh (1991), as if the painter's entire life was summed up in it.