In just over a 100 kilometres of cruising and only three locks, we’d chugged up the Seine and then the Oise Rivers, we had travelled from one famous artist’s world to another.
From tourist-jammed Giverny with all its wonderful flower gardens and lily ponds so central to the paintings of Claude Monet, to quiet, quaint little Auvers.
We were able to tie up on a floating pontoon at a mooring on the edge of town.
We soon set off on shore and what unforgettable experience it was for us to explore and retrace Vincent van Gogh’s time there.
It was the rustic shape of its buildings; the houses, town hall and church, together with the people of the time, and the countryside and the wheat-fields which had inspired him. In an explosion of creative energy Vincent produced no less than 77 unforgettable works of art created in just 70 days (listed here) followed by his tragic, self-inflicted death.
Despite van Gogh’s stature up near the very pinnacle of artists, Auvers (thankfully) lacked the crazy swarm of tourists of nearby Giverny. Small groups and couples like us followed numbered maps stopping at fifteen or twenty large signs displaying copies of the paintings created at these spots around the town and its outskirts.
Like so many others, we love his paintings. Over the last few years here in Europe we’ve had the opportunity to see many of them at the d’Orsay in Paris, the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and at several other exhibitions too.
As well as being a brilliant artist, he wrote the most wonderful and evocative letters, over 670 of them largely to his brother Theo. The story of his life they tell is the centre of the book The Letters of Vincent van Gogh which I’d read along with others, adding further depth to our visit.
Some of the highlights:
1. The Oise
We were moored right in the middle of this painting. The trees have of course all grown, but little else seemed to have changed. In the book, Vincent van Gogh; Portrait of an Artist it tells of his first feelings of the place. “Vincent described Auvers as “very beautiful, having among other things a lot of old thatched roofs.… It is real country, characteristic and picturesque.” The first day he set off down the long slope dotted with cottages to the Oise River to draw. The sky was filled with crows circling the wheat fields, and the pink-and-white almond trees were in bloom”.
2. The Auberge Ravoux.
Van Gogh apparently came to Auvers at the suggestion of Pissaro who lived nearby in Pontoise. Vincent would have known that fellow artists Gauguin, Cézanne and Daubigny had enjoyed working there. It was also home of course for Dr Gachet, who had a special interest in treating melancholia. Vincent rented a room up on the top floor in the little inn where he died three months later.
Visitors can access the room from the back of the building. Around at the front it’s still very much a traditional restaurant aimed at the broad market. Groups of what seemed to be locals as well as visitors. All arrived around 12:00 as we did. The decor looked as if little had changed since the 1920s. The menu was good, but what could be called “unadventurous”. Our host took the orders from us all without much banter and two young assistants then took over. About an hour and a half later the patrons as one all started calling for the “l’addition s’il vous plait” and suddenly departed. Still little dialogue from our host who had brought our bill along with a postcard with a photo of the Ravoux family. Vincent had got on well with them had painted 3 portraits of their 13 year old daughter Adeline.
3. The Town Hall.
Looking across the street behind the photographer and his camera, the family would have been looking straight at the hotel de ville, which then looked very much as now. So well captured on canvas. Though since Vincent’s time, the chain on the little fence in the foreground seems to have been stolen.
4. The Church.
The Notre Dame Auvers is not far away. What surprised us, comparing the painting on the sign with the actual building in front of us, was how Vincent had captured its colours, textures and dimensions so accurately while at the same time been able to make the church almost come alive on the canvas.
5. Wheatfield with Crows.
Few of van Gough’s paintings have created more comment or discussion than this, one of his great masterpieces. He painted many of wheat fields but this is generally agreed to be the best. 123 years later, there we stood in exactly the same field. It had probably been created in a single day, a month or so earlier in the season.
The harvest had now been completed and the crows must have moved on. But the green weeds along a rutted red dirt track still disappeared over the ridge. Some have mistakenly suggested this was his last painting, but it’s certainly one of his greatest.
Brilliant historian and TV presenter Simon Schama devotes a whole one hour documentary to it in his series “The Power of Art”. He says – as only he can; “So what are we looking at with this painting? There’s suffocation, but elation too. The crows might be coming at us, but equally they might be flying away, demons gone as we immerse ourselves in the power of nature. It’s a massive wall of writhing brilliant paint, in which the colour itself seems to tremble and pulse and sway.” There is an extract from the film to download here. We have the series on DVD and thoroughly recommend it.
6. Auvers Cemetery