Van Gogh died here
To go up to Van Gogh’s room, we went into an entrance at the back of Auberge Ravoux which takes you up to the second floor. This has been converted into a small gift shop and a little theatre.
The theatre plays a movie, maybe 8 or 10 minutes long, about Van Gogh and locations he painted in Auvers. What struck me about it, other than the local scenery, was the classical soundtrack punctuated with bird songs. There did seem to be a lot of birds in Auvers which was quite noticeable when we walked through the fields.
Now, up to the third floor. We went up a staircase at the front of the building. It had been renovated so it felt quite new. When we got to the third floor, it had also been renovated, but made to look like it did at the end of the 1800s. Quite dingy, muted beige and green colours. We came upon the first room, which at first we thought was Van Gogh’s. It had an old mattress in it which served to show how small and cramped the rest of the room was. We were basically in the attic of the building. The room had a skylight which you can see from the street.
We walked past that room and came upon a second room. This, as it turned out, was Van Gogh’s room.
They had put a chair, similar to the ones he had in Arles, in the room. One wall had a plexi-glass covering. Later we found out that the owner of the café has a dream of showing an actual Van Gogh painting, one that Van Gogh would have painted in Auvers, in that room. This was prompted by a line in a letter that Vincent had written Theo while in Auvers, “One day or another, I believe I shall find a way of having an exhibition of my own in a café”. Hence the protective plexi. I can’t imagine that ever happening – you can’t get more than 10 people into the room at once and the security requirements would be prohibitive.
Despite the presence of the panel, you couldn’t help but feel a bit what it must have been like to live in this room in the attic. For the most part, he would have only slept here. With his constant painting, his visits to Dr. Gachet and a 3-day trip to Paris, Van Gogh wouldn’t have had much time here. But still, it couldn’t have helped his spirits at the end of the day, being cooped up by himself in a gloomy room under the eaves. Here’s where he would have written his last letters to Theo. Since there was no desk in the room, I imagine he would have had to sit up in bed to write them.
A few things struck me. The cupboard, where he stored his paintings, seemed like such a small space. He would have had other paintings hanging from the walls or leaning to dry. The colours and smell of oil paints must have been intense in there.
Outside of the room was the back staircase. They had left this much as it was – primitive carpentry, basically the back steps up to the attic.
Standing there, I thought about his last couple of days. He had shot himself with a small revolver in the chest under his heart. He did this while he was painting out in a field. (Apparently he had borrowed the gun to scare away crows. While no one is certain which painting was his last, it has been established it wasn’t the one with the crows over the wheat field.)
Van Gogh survived the bullet and staggered back to the Auberge. Ravoux had seen him come in, but Van Gogh had hidden his wound and went up to his room. When he didn’t come down for dinner as usual, Ravoux went up to the room, only to find him laying in bed smoking his pipe. He calmly told Ravoux he had shot himself. Ravoux called for a local doctor and Dr Gachet. Upon examining him, they didn’t want to remove the bullet, fearing it was too close to his heart.
The next morning, Van Gogh still alive, Anton Hirschig a Dutch painter who had the room next to Van Gogh’s, took the first train to Paris to get Theo. They arrived back midday. It was Monday, July 29.
I have always had questions about what happened that day. First off, no one made any attempt to bring Van Gogh to a hospital, either locally or in Paris. No one called for any other doctor or surgeon who might attempt any sort of surgery. A policeman came up to the room (word had spread throughout Auvers) and Theo and others must have convinced him that there was nothing to do – no crime or murder had taken place, everything was okay. Essentially it seems that it was clear that Van Gogh wanted to die, and Theo and others were resigned to let that happen. Sometime during that day, Dr. Gachet made a quick sketch of Van Gogh.
At the end of the day, with Vincent still alive, the others left. Theo stayed with him. Imagine the room for a moment. Tiny, cramped, dimly lit, quite warm on a hot summer night. The skylight open to let in a bit of air. The smell of oil paints. His magnificent Auvers paintings covering the walls. Brushes and easel in a corner. One bed for Vincent, one chair for Theo, likely a dresser.
Finally, at 1:30 a.m., July 30, Van Gogh died. In the morning, Ravoux cleared out a space on the second floor (today’s gift shop), to make room for trestles to support the open coffin. Around it, they arranged his paintings and flowers – mostly yellow. At the foot of his coffin, his easel, brushes and folding stool.
Then, at 3 o’clock, they raised the coffin, brought it down to the hearse. The Auvers parish priest refused to conduct the funeral because it was a suicide. They found another priest.
Under a sweltering sun, the painter Emile Bernard, Pere Tanguy, Van Gogh’s paint supplier in Paris, the painter Lucien Pissarro, Dr. Gachet and a few others followed Theo behind his brother’s body, up the small hill, through the fields that Vincent had so recently painted, and out to the cemetery.
A short service was given at the grave side, and the funeral party came back to the Auberge. Theo gave out a number of Van Gogh’s paintings. Apparently, ever the collector, Dr. Gachet grabbed a bunch of them. In the end though, we all benefit from his greed. Many years later, his son donated many of them to the Louvre. Today they hang in the Musée d’Orsay.
When everyone left, Theo was alone in the room with the remains of his brother’s belongings. Stop and think for a moment what that must have been like for Theo. After all the years supporting his brother, having received so many paintings that were admired by a small circle of painters, but no patrons, after Vincent’s time in an asylum, and then the move back north to be closer to Theo, and now this, so fast, so final….. it must have been shattering.
Looking through one of Vincent’s jackets, he found an unsent letter addressed to him. As lucid and prescient as always, Vincent wrote, “Well, my own work, I am risking my life for it and my reason has half foundered because of it – that’s all right….”
We spent a few more minutes upstairs. There wasn’t much more to look at, but it was a surreal place to be. Apparently, after Vincent’s death, that room was never rented again. No one would want the room of a suicide.
We went downstairs to see whether we could have lunch where Van Gogh ate. The restaurant menu was based on the ones from Van Gogh’s time. And that lead to one of our most memorable meals of our trip.