The picture painted of Vincent Van Gogh in most places is the archetype of a doomed genius. This is not the case in Auvers-sur-Oise — the French town where Van Gogh lived and died. At least it is not the legacy that it imparted me with. You see, culture is a discourse often constructed on the shaky ground of narrative. The history of the arts requires an angle, and with Van Gogh clearly struggling with mental health issues throughout his life and finding fame and acclaim after his unfortunate end, the token of a struggling artist is an easy one to apply.
However, despite the depths of his despair – which is certainly in the welter of his life and work – it would seem to me that in Auvers-sur-Oise, his artistic zenith came with a sort of liberation. By this stage, he had failed and been thrown around by life’s invisible bouncers everywhere he staggered.
And yet, after this endless scorning by the art world, he wavered into the open arms of the French countryside and lived his life artistically like a man who had once been struck by lightning and now was happy to lie down, smile and find peace in the storm that howled around him, safe in the knowledge that it was statistically impossible for him to be struck by lightning once again. From this blissful perch, he could lure the stars a little closer with the wand of his paintbrush, wash the dark out the nighttime and cast the day with colours.
Peering out from Saint-Paul asylum at the canvas of his window, he captured the shabby-chic sprawl of the tipsy French countryside and swirled the spires and stars into the dreamscape of ‘Starry Night’. With the moon bigger than foreground buildings and butter-coloured setting suns about to be pricked by the promontory of spiring trees, his painting is one that captured the glossy-eyed peace of a soul who felt he was the last one awake in the entire slumbering town. Insulated from the world like a merry drunk, all seems well in his painting, as it often does in the sleepy French town that spawned it. There is no doubt that Van Gogh, at least in the act of creation, felt the same.
Here, amid the timeless crooked streets, wobbly buildings tumbling over themselves like old friends staggering home on drunken heels, greenery, haystacks and cathedrals, this rather more sanguine story is beginning to seed. Irving Stone’s classic novel on the painter may have established the narrative that Don McLean wonderfully extolled when he sang “You took your life as lovers often do” but Auvers-sur-Oise puts forward an alternative that seems more appropriate of the peace that can be found there, and it is far from a dreamy illusion either.
The work of biographers Steven Naifeh and Gregory White-Smith has uncovered various discrepancies in the old story of his final days. Traditionally the tale was that he walked through town one morning with his easel and painting equipment in toe. He began work in a field before deciding he had had enough, shooting himself in the heart, missing, blacking out, later reawakening and walking back into town only to die in bed as a result of his wound.
The alternate story is one that has been held in Auvers-sur-Oise since it happened. Vincent had become friends with a local boy, Gaston Secrétan, who wished to be a painter. As Van Gogh sat by his easel in the fields, the boy would discuss art with him, asking for tips and anecdotes about the various art scenes and galleries of Europe, galleries where the works perched before them on Van Gogh’s easel would later hang and entice the dampened eyes of millions. This friendship was a tonic to Van Gogh’s troubles, and for that, the artist was happy to endure the endless pranks and teasing of Gaston’s younger brother René.
René Secrétan and other local lads would mock Van Gogh unendingly for his general eccentric appearance, best described in a holistic sense as dog-eared. They would prank the artist as he painted in the field, lacquering the tip of the paintbrush that he would lick with chilli powder when he wasn’t around and generally bullying him. One day, René journeyed into Paris with his family to watch a Buffalo Bill show. The young boy was so enamoured by the performance that when he returned to Auvers-sur-Oise, he was dressed in full cowboy drag, complete with a working revolver in a pistol holster.
In the days immediately following Van Gogh’s fatal wounding, the Secrétan boys were taken by their father to Paris. When they returned, René’s revolver was never to be seen again. Thus, it is the view in Auvers-sur-Oise and corroborated by tireless research on the part of biographers Steven Naifeh and Gregory White-Smith that Vincent was shot accidentally after a quarrel between the two brothers, and his final acts were to ensure that nobody was punished for the tragic catastrophe. As his final words to his landlord hint: “Don’t accuse anyone.”
In the quiet chatter of cafés, this tale has been recited a thousand times over by locals who were once blessed to have a genius, albeit a troubled one, in their midst. Not only the story remains, but much of Van Gogh’s idealised view of things seems to coat the streets with a glow. As he said himself, “I dreamed of painting and, then I painted my dream.”
With things moving at a breezier pace, it’s easy to see how he applied this philosophy to his brush in the honeyed belle of the town. In fact, you can even see the world through his eyes by following in his footsteps and checking out the signposted spots where he perched his easel in front of the Church of Auvers and more.
It also seems strangely befitting that the town where he finally found peace should be the only residence of Van Gogh’s that remains perfectly intact. As it happens, it remains not only intact but unchanged to such an extent that the crumbling minimalism of his humble abode is like stepping into the canvas of his life for a moment. It was in The Ravoux Inn that Van Gogh spent the last 70 days of life, and it was from this fleeting space that some of his most eternalised works were whisked into creation.
In this town, bistros can serve the same dishes they offered up in 1876 in oak-clad dining rooms without ever feeling kitsch. The tasteful timeless ways of the artist who once frequented them still linger like a spiritual numen, but the trail is, ultimately, not one that pertains to following in the footsteps of Van Gogh — it resides in enjoying the same reverie in renewal that he euphorically slapped on to countless canvases.
In this town, the long-held narrative of Van Gogh’s life can be overturned on a whim. After all, surely paintings as full of wonder and awe speak of a man contented with the cathartic space he was able to splash out in front of him with nothing more than a serene view enjoyed with a sense of pillow-propped dreaminess and a few colours on his palette.
His paintings, and indeed all creativity, is a celebration of beauty. It is the impermanence of life and fleeting moments that makes it worth living, makes it worth bottling into pictures and makes far-flung Parisian towns worth visiting. With the firmament hung out on spiderwebs, lakes happily melting over the land, and everything else etched into his paintings, the simple joie de vivre of Van Gogh in France can be shared in. As he said himself, while he was there: “Be clearly aware of the stars and infinity on high. Then life seems almost enchanted after all.”