It doesn’t qualify as a city—the French officially call it a “commune” and its maximum population is only 7000—but Auvers-sur-Oise still overflows with the beauty and serenity that attracted its most famous resident, Vincent van Gogh in 1890. I traveled the 20+ miles northwest of Paris just for the day to enter a village that presents so much of its van Gogh history without overdoing it…I enjoyed a quiet stroll through the village and found—neither confronted nor attacked by—many of its van Gogh treasures. Van Gogh spent his last months there, where he painted nearly 80 paintings in 70 days, where he died, where he was laid out on a pool table, and where he is buried.
I left Paris from the Gare Saint Lazare and changed trains in Pontoise (realizing halfway through the trainride that the name means Bridge [Pont] on the Oise, the same river that gives Auvers-sur-Oise its full name). Within an hour, I was standing in Auvers across the street from the Auberg Ravoux where van Gogh lived, worked, and died. The day was sunny and hot, but the town was empty of the tourists I’d been warned about. I started at the Hotel, which manages its fame very carefully, very graciously; a young lady at the Fenetre de Billet (ticket window) told me all about the hotel and how to find other sites around town that would suit my interest.
Soon I was climbing the austere spiral stairs to the attic space that served as his room; as plain and empty as they show it, I imagined the room with stacked, still-drying canvases as it may have been when his brother, Theo, came to Vincent’s death bed in 1890: portraits of Dr. Gachet, Daubigny’s Garden, the Auvers Town Hall, a field of poppies, so many visions of the world that would become treasures.
I wandered the town to find sites I knew from the paintings: the Daubigny house and garden, and house of Dr. Gachet, and the church of Notre-Dame-de-l'Assomption. Soon after arriving in Auvers, van Gogh wrote to Theo, “Auvers is very beautiful…it is profoundly beautiful, it is the real country, characteristic and picturesque.” I am no van Gogh, but neither am I Caliban—I could appreciate why he was moved in Auvers to paint and paint everything. Maybe because I knew his paintings and had read his letters, I was sensitive to the shapes, colors, lighting, and elements of the area. Lost at one point on a back road, I felt I recognized a place where the forest is thick with twilight dark except that a shaft of midday sun pierced down deep within the trees and lighted the background undergrowth; the countryside was filled with tiny pink flowers atop sturdy carnation-like stalks, purple ferns, poison ivy everywhere, and rows of yellow iris; winding lanes lined by stone walls or trees invited me in by virtue of their cool shade on such a hot day and twisted right or left out of sight, beckoning, “What’s just around that bend?”
On my way to the cemetery, I passed the Notre Dame church on the edge of town (the sky was as blue as in his painting but the stone was not at all the same purple-blue). I was happy to find an unlocked door (the piano tuner was at work and had left the door unlocked), so I walked in where it was cool and sat quietly cooling myself. Only the piano tuner and I were there, but he paid me no mind and kept banging C-C-C D-D-D E-E-E as he finished the tuning.
I continued uphill to find the cemetery across from a picturesque hayfield dotted with orange poppies under the same blue sky. I’ve written before about the graves and how beautifully simple they are…as van Gogh once wrote to his brother, “How difficult it is to be so simple.” I used my broken French to ask the groundskeeper to take my picture, which he did, and he art-directed me in his broken English.
I saw not even a single painting in Auvers-sur-Oise, but I did see many of the places and things that became van Gogh’s paintings. I got to enjoy my little knowledge of him and certainly got to add to it, but clearly added to my understanding of the beauty of van Gogh's art.