Auvers-sur-Oise is a medieval village in France made famous by oil paint. Just north of Paris, it’s synonymous with 19th Century artists (including Daubigny, Cezanne, and Van Gogh) and will forever be remembered for its translations into oil paint by those artists.
Auvers is seductive at any hour of the day. The sandstone houses cushioned in greenery are gentle on the eyes, and the village and many of its roads follow the curves of the River Oise. Also, being just a few streets wide, you’re soon in woodlands and wheat fields. The thatched roofs of Auvers have, it seems, all been replaced by low-maintenance tiles. But the village’s appearance hasn’t considerably changed since those artists planted their easels in it. Strolling around the gently winding streets of Auvers, it’s easy to see why many artists came here.
When I worked at a law firm in Tokyo, a Van Gogh calendar hung on a wall in the office. I can remember seeing the painting Houses at Auvers (above) on that calendar against the grey wall and thinking, I need to go there. Before heading to Auvers, I held back from virtually walking around the town on Google Maps or checking where Houses at Auvers and other paintings had been made. I wanted to take the village in as someone in the past might have done, not primed by too much information.
Walking out of my accommodation in Auvers, within five minutes I'd stumbled across the scene in the above painting. The colours of the scene were different to the painting. (The afternoon was turning to twilight, and the scene wasn't as verdant as the painting.) But I lost my breath for a moment when I realized my boots were in the same spot that Van Gogh's had been. Thinking back to that calendar, I felt pleased it'd prompted me to travel over 6000 miles to the scene.
As is clear in the above painting, Van Gogh’s Auvers is often depicted with sinuous lines. It seems that the River Oise and its fish have flowed into the village—the foliage, clouds, paths, people, and other elements. Looking at his Auvers paintings is like gazing into an aquarium. And strolling around Auvers, you notice these lines in the real world. Here's an example:
Looking at the stylistic development of Van Gogh’s work, it seems that he started to use such lines when he was being treated at Saint-Paul-de-Mausole in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. (This is the monastery-affiliated asylum in which he lived before moving north to Auvers.) Akin to Auvers, winding lines are part of the natural landscape there. Driving towards Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, you’re greeted by the Chaîne des Alpilles, a looming range of curly, craggy mountains. Their silhouette often features in Van Gogh’s work from that period. Here’s an example of such a piece:
And here's an old postcard of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, where Van Gogh spent some of his most peaceful times, with the Chaîne des Alpilles in the background:
Up until this point in his life (May 1889), Van Gogh had changed and exaggerated real-life colours to express the subject's essence. In St. Remy, he did this in earnest with line.
Van Gogh would have seen these mountains each day, and, I imagine, they would have given him a sense of stability. Their silhouette in his paintings and drawings ripple into other lines in the same piece, such as clouds and olive trees. It seems that these mountains stayed in his fingers for the rest of his days.