Van Gogh in a Japanese Law Firm / by Stuart Ayre

 Twilight in Auvers

Twilight in Auvers

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. Undamaged by war, the old sandstone houses nestled in greenery are gentle on the eyes. The village follows the curves of the River Oise, and many of its roads also follow those curves. Being just a few streets deep, 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 The thatched roofs of Auvers have, it seems, all been replaced by low-maintenance tiles.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 were drawn to live here.

 Houses at Auvers (May 1890) by Vincent van Gogh (painted in Auvers-sur-Oise)

Houses at Auvers (May 1890) by Vincent van Gogh (painted in Auvers-sur-Oise)

When I was working 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 it 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 Airbnb 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 can be seen in the above painting, Van Gogh’s depictions of Auvers are often populated with sinuous lines. It’s as if the River Oise and its fish have flowed into everything—the foliage, clouds, paths, people, and other elements. Looking at them is like gazing at an aquarium. Strolling around Auvers, you notice these lines in the real world. Here's an example:

 Photo taken near Chavonal in Auvers-sur-Oise with curves highlighted

Photo taken near Chavonal in Auvers-sur-Oise with curves highlighted

 

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 immediately 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:

 Olive Trees in a Mountain Landscape (late June 1889) by Vincent Van Gogh (painted in Saint Rémy)

Olive Trees in a Mountain Landscape (late June 1889) by Vincent Van Gogh (painted in Saint Rémy)

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:

 Saint-Paul-de-Mausole (foreground) and the Chaîne des Alpilles (background)

Saint-Paul-de-Mausole (foreground) and the Chaîne des Alpilles (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 lines. Van Gogh would have seen these mountains on a daily basis, and, I imagine, they would have given him a sense of stability. Their silhouette in his paintings and drawings seems to ripple into other lines in the same piece, such as clouds and olive trees, like an echo. It seems that these mountains stayed in his fingers for the rest of his days.