One of the most famous unsolved mysteries in the history of art is the death of Van Gogh. The death came a few months after the art world had eventually realized they had a maverick in their midst. And it happened when he was creating some of the most accomplished work of his career, some of it tantalizingly unfinished.
For such a famous incident, little is known about it for certain. What is known is that a gunshot was fired, the bullet entered his chest, and then, sometime after, he stumbled to his lodgings and died a couple of days later in the presence of his brother. No suicide note or gun were found. And, suspiciously, contemporary accounts of the incident are contradictory. Myriad theories exist on why and how the incident happened (one of which is fratricide (i.e., his brother killed him)).
The inn he stayed at and died in, the Auberge Ravoux in Auvers-sur-Oise, is open to the public. The entire inn was expertly restored to its 19th-century condition between 1987 and 1993, and visitors can now pay a fee to visit Van Gogh’s room.
As a person who adores Van Gogh's work and who is intrigued by the mysteries around him, I'd been wanting to visit his final lodgings for a while. On a recent Van-Gogh trip around western Europe, I got the chance to do so.
Rather than stroll straight to it from my bed and breakfast in the village, I wanted to somewhat simulate a day in the life of Van Gogh. To prime myself for the visit, I rose at dawn (as Van Gogh used to), put my smart phone away, and sketched in the fields that sit above the village (see below for one of my sketches).
After being guided to the gloomy staircase to Van Gogh's room, I climbed it, entered the room, and closed the door. The room seemed to be approximately the size of my bedroom in Tokyo (about 8m²), so the dimensions were familiar. The lack of things in the room also accented the Japanese feel it had for me. And sunlight was pouring in from a window in the roof, warming the floorboards.
Stood in the silence, I pondered Van Gogh's life at the time he'd lived there—his daily routine of waking at dawn to paint, the acquaintances he had at the time, and the stunning ways he translated the place and its people into art. After my goosebumps had gone down, my thoughts then veered toward something more pedestrian—the room’s authenticity.
Standing in the room, I felt satisfied that its dimensions were unchanged. Also, a French guide had explained that the floorboards were authentic but had been removed and put back to conduct reinforcement work on the floor. I was therefore fairly sure that Van Gogh had walked on them. The staircase to the room and the room next door were also apparently authentic.
But doubts about the authenticity of other things lingered. What was hung on these walls in 1890? How was it furnished? What did Van Gogh store in the built-in cupboard space? What did it smell like? I was reminded that authenticity and enjoyment walk hand in hand in an historical setting like this. Unless new evidence arises, it’s likely impossible to know the answers to such questions with certainty. But that inner Sherlock, which we each have, gave me a pang to get some answers.
The staff at the inn, however, couldn't provide much information on the restoration work itself, so I decided to leave that research to another day.
In an attempt to get closer to Van Gogh, I left the inn and returned to the scenery he'd painted. The wheat fields were yet to ripen and become those magnetic fields of amber in his paintings. But, walking around the stony village and those expansive wheat fields, you're in Vincent's world. It's akin to viewing Mont Sainte-Victoire from Aix en Provence from where Cezanne painted.
I also painted some more of the scenes that he had. Doing this feels like you're there with the artist, because the thoughts running through your mind are similar to those that he or she had: stay out of the sun when it's too hot, paint this but don't paint that, use this kind of line (see this post for information on lines), use this color combination, and the like.
It was when drawing and painting scenes that Van Gogh had, with my feet in the same place that he had had his, that I felt closest to him. (Although speaking in person with long-term Van Gogh researchers Ken Wilkie (who found a Van Gogh drawing in an attic) and Bernadette Murphy (who brought evidence to the Van Gogh Museum that proved for certain that Van Gogh cut off his entire ear) about their Van-Gogh discoveries was similarly magical.)
Leaving Auvers felt like walking off a movie set. Once you go off stage left or right from the works he made, you're back in the 21st century and his presence disappears.