[Part 5/5] Vincent Van Gogh: End of trajectory: Auvers-sur-Oise

Van Gogh drew everything he saw: a “death’s head” moth, grasshoppers, irises and even simple blades of grass. As soon as he was allowed to go beyond the gate, he started to paint blossoming meadows, and later yellow fields. He painted olive trees and the huge plane trees on the streets of the small town of Saint-Rémy.

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Vincent van Gogh, Wheat Field with Crows, 1890. Oil on canvas, 50.5 x 103 cm. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

Van Gogh was not going to surrender. He drew and painted as if possessed, hoping that his thirst for work would help him recover. When there was no model, he copied with oil the engravings that his brother had sent to him at his request. He had always loved Millet, and now copied his scenes of labouring peasants. Van Gogh’s copies, painted with his nervous energy and passion, gained a life of their own, independent of their original source.

In his letters to Theo, he never mentioned the studies he painted at night. In Arles, Van Gogh had already been captivated by the unusual beauty of the southern night sky, which he immediately pictured with the colours of his palette, “The dark blue sky was studded with darker clouds, bluer than the most intense cobalt, or paler than the bluish whiteness of the Milky Way. Against this blue background stars shone bright: greenish, yellow, white, pink; shinier, more similar to jewels, than what we have in our country and even in Paris; they can be compared to opals, emeralds, lapis lazuli, rubies, sapphires” (The Starry Night).

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Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night, 1889. Oil on canvas, 73.7 x 92.1 cm.
The Museum of Modern Art , New York.

In his present condition, when days full of despair alternated with moments of hope, the night sky shone with new beauty. Dark blue, stretched above tiny houses, the sky in this painting is filled with that mysterious life beyond human perception. The stars and the moon are brightly wreathed, while celestial bodies move among one another in entangled spirals. And man appears small and helpless in the vortex of life in the universe (Starry Night). In this world all scales are modified.

Small human figures dream on a terrible, rough path resembling an impetuous river. Huge cypresses rush into the night sky like flames. (Country Road in Provence by Night).

Vincent van Gogh, Country Road in Provence by Night, 1890. Oil on canvas. Kröller-Müller Museum.

Until then, no one before Van Gogh had managed or even tried to express human passions so powerfully through colours on canvas.

But Van Gogh was still hopeful. Theo wrote to him about a remarkable physician named Dr. Gachet, who was a friend of the impressionist artists and cured with homeopathy. In the spring of 1890, Van Gogh wrote to his brother that his last attack had passed like a storm, and that he was working with frenzied fervour. He was ready to return to Paris. On May 17, 1890 Theo met his brother at the Gare de Lyon in Paris. Van Gogh made the acquaintance of Theo’s wife and their young son, then three days later, on May 20, left for Auvers-sur-Oise.

Van Gogh began working on Dr. Gachet’s portrait at once. In a letter from June 4, he described his colour plan to Theo, “…the head with a white cap, very fair, bright hair, his fingers are also light-coloured, a blue jacket against a cobalt blue background. He is sitting, leaning on a red table on which lies a yellow book and a twig of violet fox-glove”(Dr. Paul Gachet).

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Vincent van Gogh, Dr. Paul Gachet, 1890. Oil on canvas, 68 x 57 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

The extraordinary intensity of the colours, their sharp contrast, the deformed features of the doctor’s face and the twisting line of the contour contribute to the image of a nervous, unbalanced and sad person, as Van Gogh saw him. It is difficult to determine just whose character was revealed in this painting – the model’s or the artist himself ? For Van Gogh, each painting, regardless of its subject, was an opportunity and a means for immodest disclosure of his own private world, his pains and despair.

Van Gogh left the hotel where he had been staying, to move to a tiny room at Ravoux’s on the main street, opposite the town-hall. He worked with unprecedented energy, even for him, spending each day painting. He had many projects, encompassing all possible motifs in Auvers.

The local church received the most fantastic embodiment in Van Gogh’s painting. A Roman construction finished in Gothic style, this church stood above the village, next to the hill where a rural cemetery lay nearby. On Van Gogh’s canvas, the broken lines set the church in motion, the sandy paths run about the building like rivers, and the contrast of the red tiles with the blue sky filled the painting with anguish (The Church of Auvers-sur-Oise seen from the Chevet).

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Vincent van Gogh, The Church at Auvers-sur-Oise seen from the Chevet, 1890.
Oil on canvas, 94 x 74.5 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

He and Dr. Gachet did indeed become friends. He painted the portrait of Dr. Gachet’s nineteen-year-old daughter sitting at a piano. When it was possible to find models in the village, he painted the local countrywomen. Most of all, Van Gogh was drawn by the fields. He went to the neighbouring hills to paint the wide spaces that surrounded him “with green, yellow and green-blue tones” in the same way he had painted the panorama of Provence from the hills of Arles (Landscape near Auvers After the Rain). He went to the fields every day, like going to work.

He lived in a constant state of agitation, and Dr. Gachet, who was also too nervous, was not living up to his expectations. Van Gogh saw him as another sick individual. Van Gogh was afraid of renewed attacks and wanted to have enough time to concentrate as much as possible on his painting. He worked under such strain that it led to complete exhaustion. On July 27, Van Gogh went to the cornfields and shot himself in the chest with a revolver. Vincent died on July 29 in Auvers, in the presence of Dr. Gachet and Theo van Gogh, who had come from Paris. He was buried in the rural cemetery on the hill behind the church. Later, his brother Theo joined him there for his last sleep. Auvers became a monument of Vincent van Gogh’s tragic destiny and dazzling creativity.

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