Touring Europe in the Footsteps of van Gogh
Traveling to many of the landmarks and cities important to
van Gogh’s artistic life, including Montmartre in Paris, the
Borinage in Belgium and Auvers-sur-Oise, where he died at 37.
By NINA SIEGALDEC. 23, 2015
A few months ago, I stood at the corner of a busy roundabout called Place Lamartine, across from the Roman gates leading into Arles in southern France, on a spot that was pivotal in the life of Vincent van Gogh. Behind me was the Rhone River, where he painted sparkling reflections from the quay on one particularly memorable starry night. Before me was a run-down commercial strip leading toward vast fields of the sunflowers he painted time and again.
It was where Vincent van Gogh’s Yellow House once stood, the sun-drenched Provençal home that was the subject of his 1888 oil painting, where he took a period of “enforced rest” as he put it, in a pale violet-walled “Bedroom” he depicted in oil paintings three times that year.
Credit Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
The little house contained legends: It was where one of the world’s most famous artists pushed his painting technique to its peak with works such as “Café Terrace at Night,” “Sunflowers” and “The Sower.” And it was where his personal life turned a dramatic and tragic corner. Here, van Gogh had a tumultuous fight with his friend, Paul Gauguin, and sliced a blade through his own ear, before admitting himself to the local mental hospital.
From March to August, I traveled to many of the landmarks of van Gogh’s artistic life, beginning in the Belgian mining town of Mons, where the 27-year-old Dutchman was fired from his job as a missionary working among local coal miners for “undermining the dignity of the priesthood” by opting to live in the same squalid conditions as the miners — and where he instead began to draw. From there, I traveled to his renowned painting locations, Montmartre in Paris and Arles and St. Rémy in Provence, and ultimately to the Parisian suburb of Auvers-sur-Oise, where his life was cut short in his 37th year.
I was on the trail of the artist during Van Gogh Europe 2015, the year that commemorates the 125th anniversary of his death, observed by cultural events and exhibitions related to van Gogh throughout the Netherlands, Belgium and France. What struck me was that, considering how famous and beloved van Gogh is, there are a number of historical landmarks of his life that have not been preserved, or are neglected. A few spots, however — such as van Gogh’s room at the asylum in St.-Rémy-de-Provence and his hotel room in Auvers-sur-Oise, where he died — have been handsomely renovated to great effect for visitors interested in the artist’s life, and for the local communities, which benefit economically from this form of gentle cultural tourism.
Hoping to replicate these strong examples, officials involved in Van Gogh Europe 2015 said their aim was to promote the forgotten sites, to focus attention on the fact that many sites linked to van Gogh were still in need of preservation.
Maison de Santé
St.-Paul de Mausole
By The New York Times
“There’s a huge amount of interest worldwide in van Gogh’s paintings, and there’s a great audience for his work in museums,” Frank van den Eijnden, chairman of the Van Gogh Europe Foundation, said in a phone interview. “But generally there is less money for restoration and preservation of van Gogh heritage, mainly the local heritage sites that you can find in France, Belgium and the Netherlands. We needed more attention for all the organizations involved, and especially from the governments that were linked to these locations. We really want van Gogh heritage to be a world heritage in the coming years.”
Mostly, in places where van Gogh lived, there are a number of plaques featuring van Gogh images or words from his letters, in sometimes inscrutable locations. In St.-Rémy-de-Provence, for example, there is a plaque that shows his “Green Wheat Field With Cypress” posted in front of the white stucco wall of a private home.
I wasn’t a van Gogh fan when I embarked on this journey. I moved to the Netherlands nine years ago to do research for a novel on Rembrandt, and my passion lies more in the Dutch old masters. My trouble with van Gogh’s work was that, to me, it had the familiarity of cereal boxes — or, as Andy Warhol might have it, soup cans — copied and reproduced to the point of unseeability. Even when I was standing among the originals, the freshness of his work evaded me. Also, I was weary of what seemed like a triteness in van Gogh’s biography, the tortured-genius-who-never-sold-a-painting-in-his-life.
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