July 29, 2015, is the 125th anniversary of Vincent van Gogh’s death. This past spring I fulfilled one of my lifelong dreams by taking a trip to Europe to follow in Van Gogh’s footsteps. As a teenager I checked out every library book about Van Gogh, and eventually read the unabridged three-volume set of letters he wrote to his brother, Theo. With so much time having passed, I was eager to see if anything from Van Gogh’s time had survived. Could I stand where he did and still make out the fields he painted, or would I be standing in the center of an unrecognizable suburb or, worse, inside a shopping mall?
My girlfriend and I first traveled to the Netherlands, where Van Gogh was born and lived for most of his life. In Amsterdam we went to the Van Gogh Museum and viewed hundreds of his works, including many of his greatest paintings. We were touched to learn that the collection and museum were created by his sister-in-law, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, and nephew, Vincent Willem van Gogh. We then headed to Arles, in the south of France, where Van Gogh developed the rich color palette and strong brushwork that made him famous.
It seemed little had changed in Arles since Van Gogh’s time, aside from the absent yellow house he had lived in, which was destroyed during a bombing raid in WWII. In the center of town we found the café he depicted in Café Terrace at Night. It is now painted bright yellow with green streaks to mimic Van Gogh’s painting style. In spite of the cheesy tourist vibe, it was fun to stand in the exact spot where Van Gogh had done his painting.
Nearby we visited the local hospital where Van Gogh recovered after having cut off part of his ear during an emotional breakdown. The garden today looks nearly the same as it did 125 years ago.
After our visit to Arles, we drove 30 minutes to Saint-Rémy, where we got to visit the Saint-Paul asylum, a psychiatric hospital that Van Gogh stayed in for one year. Although depressed and lonely, Van Gogh made one masterpiece after another during this time, including two works in MoMA’s collection: The Olive Trees and The Starry Night.
Although The Starry Night was based on the view of the surrounding hills from his barred asylum window, much of the composition was imaginary, including the view of the town and, most likely, the cypress tree. It was moving to grab the bars and think, this is the sight that inspired him to paint The Starry Night, a picture that to me feels so hopeful and spiritual—in great contrast to the prison-like setting he was confined to.For our last destination, we took a train to Auvers-sur-Oise, just north of Paris, where Van Gogh lived for the last 70 days of his life, painting approximately one painting a day. We took a tour of the inn, including the room where he lived and died. Although his room is rather unremarkable, it’s well preserved due to the fact that no one has rented the space since his death. Currently the owners are determined to get an original Van Gogh painting to hang in his room.
Like Arles and Saint-Rémy, Auvers has maintained its small-town ambience and beautiful buildings, and continues to keep the subjects of Van Gogh’s paintings looking just as they did when he painted them.
Walking toward the cemetery to visit his grave, we headed up the hill and past the beautiful 800-year-old church he painted (in The Church at Auvers, 1890). Moments later, we found ourselves immersed in the fields where Van Gogh is believed to have shot himself before returning to the inn, where he eventually died.We entered his cemetery and, nearly in tears, stood at the foot of Van Gogh’s grave, where his brother Theo stood in grief on the day they buried him. Even more tragic was that Theo died just six months after Vincent, at the age of 33, and is buried right next to his brother under the same bed of ivy.
Immediately outside the cemetery, we walked down a muddy path and I realized that not only was I walking inside the painting Wheatfields with Crows, but I could also see the church he painted in the distance, the view of his landscape of Auvers in the rain, the field that he likely shot himself in, and the cemetery that he shares with his brother. At that moment I had never felt closer to Vincent.