Van Gogh Trail
If you get hooked on the Mystery of Auvers, you will eventually want to go there and, chances are, you will not be disappointed by what you find. The French village of Auvers-sur-Oise seems wonderfully frozen in the nineteen century, and its settings for art history’s most mindboggling cold case could hardly be more perfectly preserved.
But, of course, Vincent van Gogh’s 1890 summer of Auvers was only the culmination of his epic odyssey through Holland, England, Belgium and France; and, when you make that pilgrimage to Auvers, you will naturally want to precede it with visits to some of these other places Vincent experienced on his journey and captured in his art.
Just how much of that world remains?
Actually, quite a bit. While many of the places he lived or worked are gone, and none are as pristine as Auvers, much of the Van Gogh trail survives: sometimes much changed, sometimes unpleasantly crowded by the twenty-first century, but more often suggestive enough of its past to be well worth a visit on the way to Auvers.
Be warned that any attempt to retrace that odyssey in the order it was taken (the Holy Grail of all dedicated Vincent travelers) is a daunting proposition. His path was a bewildering zigzag, involving more than twenty-five changes-of-residence and much backtracking: two periods each in The Hague, Brussels and London, three in Paris.
But, after many years of traveling on it, I’ve found the Van Gogh odyssey can be approximated in a reasonable length of time if you think of it less as a dotted line than a sequence of ten geographic clusters, each of which has its own character and tie to the Van Gogh past that the pilgrim can sample to his own personal degree of interest.
The following is a guide to these ten Vincent ecologies, with a rundown on its sites, an emphasis on its elements of mystery (ending at that biggest mystery of all in Auvers) and time allowed to stop at its repositories of Van Gogh art. The duration of the tour depends on how long you care to linger but it can be done in as little as two weeks.
Except for Provence, where a car is necessary to explore the countryside, all of these places are accessible by train (or train-and-bus). But much walking is required and you’ll need a certain amount of stamina. I’ve also found that it’s best to know your Van Gogh history before you leave so you can absorb the spirit of place without a lot of on-the-spot reading.
Okay, here we go:
Wheatfield with Crows,
VAN GOGH MUSEUM
1. AMSTERDAM -- For most travelers, this city’s Schiphol Airport is the most convenient port of entry and it’s only a brief train-and-tram ride away from the Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh, with the world’s largest collection of Van Gogh art (two hundred paintings, nearly five hundred drawings).
Even if you’ve been to this treasure-trove before, it’s the appropriate place to begin your journey. Its four stories of masterpieces from every Van Gogh period will soak you in his magic, inspire you with the driving thrust of his vision and otherwise energize you for the trip ahead.
In my estimation, it’s the best of the world’s three mega-museums devoted to a single artist, (topping both the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and Picasso Museum in Paris). Since it opened in 1973, it’s been constantly changing and enlarging itself, and it never seems quite the same.
Take a few hours to stroll through the gauntlet of color and impasto that no reproduction can ever do justice: The Potato Eaters, Gauguin’s Chair, The Yellow House, The Garden of the Asylum, Wheatfield with Crows, the newly authenticated Sunset at Montmajour and so many, many more.
Take a look at the self-portrait that in 2011 the Museum declared was not a self-portrait at all but a portrait of Theo van Gogh. Theo’s son and wife always denied this accreditation and most of the art world still thinks it’s Vincent. It matters to the Mystery of Auvers. What do you think?
Don’t forget to check out the research library, which has its own displays (including, usually, some of the letters); and don’t neglect the museum’s Walmart of a gift shop with its almost comical excess of Van Gogh-themed souvenirs, knick-knacks and wearing apparel.
The Van Gogh Museum is Holland’s premier tourist attraction and, with more than a million and a half visitors a year, the line at the entrance can be brutal. But you can buy tickets in advance on-line and if you arrive just before the place opens at 10 a.m., you can almost always zip right in.
Vincent had three prominent uncles who lived in the city, each of whom he visited from time to time. Disappointingly, no one seems to know the exact address of the art store on the Leidsestraat that was operated by the most influential of this trio, his Uncle C.M. van Gogh.
But you can see the canal-fronted home of another uncle, the Reverend J. Stricker, at 8 Keizersgracht. This was where Vincent, crazy in love with his cousin (and inspired by a scene in the novel Max Havelaar), put his hand in the flame of a gas-burner and threatened to keep it there until the unresponsive girl came downstairs to see him.
Even more impressive is the stately building at 3 Grote Kattenburgerstraat (abutting the Maritime Museum) where the twenty-four-year-old Vincent lived with his Uncle Jan, an admiral in the Dutch Navy, for a fruitless year studying for admittance to Amsterdam University’s theology school.
3 GROTE KATTENBERGERSTRAAT:
A FRUITLESS YEAR OF STUDY
Three churches which he regularly attended in that same year still stand: the Oosterkerk, the Noorderkerk and the Oudezijdskerk. And, since you’ll no doubt be there anyway, you can also find the perspective he would later capture in his View of Amsterdam from Central Station.
Vincent spent much more of his urban time in Holland thirty-one miles down the road in The Hague. His mother’s family, the Carbentuses, hailed from this fabled Dutch royal capital and his parents, Anna Carbentus and Theodorus van Gogh, were married here in its Kloosterkerk in 1851.
Eighteen years later, at age sixteen, their oldest son Vincent came here to work as an apprentice clerk in the city’s branch of the French art dealer, Goupil & Son, which was co-owned by another art-dealer relative, his Paris-based namesake Uncle Vincent van Gogh.
The building where he worked for four, reasonably content and instructive years still stands at 20 Plaats, and so does the house where he boarded with the Roos family at 24 Lange Beestenmarkt (as did brother Theo when he succeeded Vincent in this Goupil position).
Eight years later, after many moves in between, the twenty-eight-year-old aspiring artist returned to The Hague for another two years. The several places in the Schenkweg district where he lived or had studios during this stint are all gone, the victim of urban renewal and World War II bombing.
But you can see the beach at Scheveningen, then a fishing village and now a posh resort, where he did some of his first memorable oil paintings; and the elegant home of his cousin-by-marriage (and brief mentor), the noted Hague-School artist, Anton Mauve, at 198 Oranjebuitensingel.
VINCENT’S AUVERS PALETTE AND PAINT TUBES, VAN GOGH MUSEUM
You might also want to see The Hague School paintings in the Mesdag Museum at 7F Laan van Meerdervoort, and the Mesdag Panorama at 65 Zeestraat, an immense, 360-degree view of the city in the 1880s (painted by Hendrik Mesdag and others) that particularly wowed Vincent.
The third city in Holland with a Vincent association is Dordrecht, twenty-five miles southeast of The Hague. He spent five months here before his year of study in Amsterdam working in the
prints department of a bookstore: another nepotistic job arranged by his Uncle Vincent.
The house where he boarded has been demolished but its former place on Tolbrugstraat is marked by a plaque. The bookstore at 256b Voorstraat is now a restaurant, with a Van Gogh-themed menu. Nearby is the harbor, where he took meditative walks almost every evening.
A fourth Dutch city worth a brief side-trip is Utrecht, twenty-eight miles to the north. Here in the Willem Arntsz Clinic, an ancient insane asylum at 119 Lange Nieuwstraat, Theo died six months after Vincent under what the Van Gogh Museum admits are “mysterious” circumstances.
This grand sweep of the Netherlands urban north you’ve just completed has been glaringly out-of-sequence to Vincent’s life but necessary, if you want to see everything that remains. Now that it’s done, you can follow the Road to Auvers a bit more in the order Vincent experienced it.
ZUNDERT IN THE MORNING
2. ZUNDERT -- The North Brabant village of Groot Zundert, where Vincent van Gogh was born on March 30, 1853, is twenty-seven miles south of Dordrecht, via the charming cathedral town of Breda, traveling through the Netherlands’ prime flower-bulb producing region.
No English-language guidebook to the country that I know of even mentions Zundert, which seems incredible considering it was the birthplace of the world’s
most celebrated artist and it’s quite special as a travel destination, with an energy and spirit you won’t find anywhere else on the trail.
The actual parsonage where he was born was torn down in 1903 but it was lovingly rebuilt in 2008 on the very spot where it stood and now houses a high-tech museum that marvelously establishes the texture and tone of the Van Gogh family’s daily life in its dozen Zundert years.
Better than any biography I’ve read, it communicates the social isolation the five Van Gogh children felt here as the offspring of the one Protestant minister in an overwhelmingly Catholic area. It made them a close-knit family: the Waltons of Brabant.
The extensive rear gardens, which were the young Vincent’s favorite daydreaming spot, have been restored (to match a description left by his mother); and the replanting unearthed the long-closed-off well of the parsonage from which the gift shop will sell you a bottle of “Van Gogh Water.”
THE VAN GOGH WELL
THE VAN GOGH BIBLE
Around the corner is the Dutch Reform church (actually more of a chapel) where Vincent’s father preached from the towering pulpit. It’s still in use but opens during the week for the busloads of Italian, French and Japanese tourists that caravan through town.
Independent travelers are supposedly not admitted but if you act interested you can probably talk one of the museum volunteers into fetching the key and guiding you through the sanctuary, where you can place your hand on the baptismal font and Bible that were used in Vincent’s christening.
As you walk into the church from the side entrance, you pass the grave of his still-born, one-year-older brother with the same name and birthday of March 30. The tombstone is next to the sidewalk so Vincent would have seen it every time he entered the building. Eerie.
Also on the church grounds are the original sextant’s house, which was built during the tenure of the Reverend Van Gogh; and the parsonage’s kitchen garden, which has been continually planted with vegetables since long before the Van Goghs were here.
In front of the church is a cobblestoned square with a surreal bronze statue by the noted Russian-French sculptor Ossip Zadkine. Dedicated by Queen Juliana in 1964, it depicts Vincent and Theo in a fond embrace, their two bodies melting into one another.
The area around Zundert has been largely suburbanized but the town has set out cycling and walking trails that give you the feel of those long, ruminating walks Vincent would take through the heath, collecting bird nests, idealizing the rural life, dreaming his dreams.
Recent Van Gogh biographies have, based on scant letter references or highly unreliable later testimony, tended to lace this remarkably stable opening chapter of his life with heavy strands of family conflict, political turmoil and religious alienation.
But Zundert leaves you with the sense that, in spite of, or maybe because of, the social isolation, Vincent’s early years were probably as idyllic as he always claimed them to be, and you can
THE ZADKINE STATUE
understand why he would spend his adult life yearning to return to this womb.
If there was ever a Citizen Kane-style movie of Vincent’s life, his “Rosebud” would not be difficult for the reporters to find. It would be a little boy running through the countryside of this Lost Eden. “O Zundert, memories of you are sometimes almost overpowering.”
THE CHURCH AT ETTEN
3. OTHER DUTCH TOWNS -- With no good Protestant school in Zundert, the eleven-year-old Vincent was (unhappily) packed off to a boarding school some thirteen miles away in the village of Zevenbergen. The building at 16 Stationsstraat still stands, but is now the presbytery of the town’s Catholic church.
Over the next two decades, he would live or spend his holidays in a succession of other Brabant towns which can be easily toured in an arc as you drive or take the train east from Zevenbergen. (You’ll soon pleasantly find that the Netherlands is a very small country.)
Between Zundert and Zevenbergen, the village of Etten (now called Etten-Leur) was a
later posting of his father where the twenty-eight-year-old Vincent re-joined his family and lived for eight bumpy months to save on expenses in his new-born quest to be an artist.
The town’s surrounding country is now almost all gone, and so is the parsonage with its garden that he later memorialized in his Memories of the Garden of Etten. But the church (now a municipal building) survives and so does an ancient linden tree on the main square that he would have seen every day.
Etten-Leur is eager to attract Van Gogh pilgrims and has recently established an information center/museum around the corner from the church. But when I appeared at its door, well within the advertised business hours, it was locked tight with no explanation posted. Irritating.
After two years in Zevenbergen, the thirteen-year-old Vincent was sent twenty miles east to the larger town of Tilburg, where he was enrolled in the inaugural year (1866) of North Brabant’s first Hoogere Burgerschool, a Dutch version of the American middle school.
The house where he boarded is gone, but a huge memorial plaque (in fact, the largest Van Gogh plaque on the Van Gogh Trail) marks the spot at 19 Sint Annaplein. The school building was formerly the palace of King Willem II and since 1934 has been the Tilburg town hall.
Vincent stayed in Tilburg nearly two years but left just months before graduation. No one knows why he departed in such haste: it’s a mystery. The town hall has recreated the room where “he received his first serious drawing lessons,” with digital displays and interactive exhibits.
The Reverend Van Gogh’s second posting in Brabant, between Zundert and Etten, was in the even smaller village of Helvoirt, eight miles northeast of Tilburg, on the road to (and four miles south of) the town of Den Bosch, the birthplace of Hieronymus Bosch and the capital of North Brabant.
Vincent visited the family twice in Helvoirt in 1874, once in the summer and then again for the Christmas holidays. It was the period when his professional life as an art dealer was badly unraveling and he was presumably called home both times for a fatherly lecture.
The Dutch Reform church is still there, and still active, but the parsonage at 47 Torenstraat where those fatherly talks took place is history. Vincent later recalled “how pleasant Helvoirt looked that evening... the lights in the village and the steeple amidst the snow-covered poplars.”
In a letter to Theo, he also nostalgically remembered “how beautiful Den Bosch looked, the market square and the streets covered with snow... Brabant is ever Brabant, and one’s native country is ever one’s native country, and countries of exile are ever countries of exile.”
From Helvoirt, the trail continues out of Brabant and north into Gelderland, where forty miles later you’ll come to the world’s second largest collection of Van Gogh
THE PLAQUE AT TILBURG
works (ninety paintings, two hundred drawings) at the Kröller-Müller Museum, deep in the moors of the Hoge Veluwe National Park near the town of Otterlo.
Hélène Müller, the daughter of a German industrialist, had the good sense to start collecting Van Gogh paintings as early as 1908, when they were just starting to become a hot item on the art market, and, fortunately for Holland, her Dutch husband, Anton Kröller patronized her prescience.
The couple built this museum on their estate and in 1939 it went to the Dutch Nation. They collected many other paintings and sculptures but the Van Goghs are the marquee attraction and every year more than 300,000 visitors make their way to this somewhat out-of-the-way spot to view them.
The galleries include landmark paintings from every period of Vincent’s career, including the earliest version of The Potato Eaters, At Eternity’s Gate, Pink Peach Tree in Blossom (Reminiscence of Mauve), Road with Cypress and Star and, most famously, the sumptuous Café Terrace at Night.
The last and most distantly northern Dutch villages on this eastward swing are Hoogeveen and Nieuw Amsterdam, a hundred miles away from Den Bosch, in the province of Drenthe, where Vincent fled for a three-month painting expedition after leaving The Hague for the last time in 1883.
Café Terrace at Night
He stayed in Hoogeveen’s Logement Hartsuiker at 24 Pesserstraat and Nieuw Amsterdam’s Scholte Hotel, both of which survive. The hotel is now the Vincent van Gogh House: a memorial to the autumn he spent painting the peat-diggers of Drenthe, with a recreation of his hotel room/makeshift studio.
In Vincent’s day, Drenthe was the remotest province of Holland, the place where its roads ran out. More populated now, it still has an end-of-the earth quality that makes it a good place to pause a moment and reflect on just how little we really know about the Young Vincent.
The image we have has been gathered largely from interviews given decades after his death, mostly from minor characters in his drama, in light of his “strange” paintings, his mutilated ear and his assumed suicide. How much of that testimony can we really trust?
4. ENGLAND -- Of the quartet of countries on the Road to Auvers, England is the one that usually gets skipped, because he did no painting here, and it seems somewhat geographically and psychologically removed from his more dramatic development in the other three nations.
This is a mistake. Vincent was a dedicated anglophile, he loved London more than any other city, England’s novelists and illustrated newspapers had a huge impact on his art, and a two-hour train ride through the Chunnel is all it takes to access a good deal of the Victorian world he knew.
He moved to London the first time at age twenty to work in Goupil’s London
HOLME (NOW VINCENT) COURT, ISLEWORTH
branch at 17 Southampton Street. Like so many moves in his life, the reason is disputed: either he was demoted and exiled or rewarded for his four years of good service in The Hague with a better-paying and more responsible position.
Southampton Street, a bustling lane between Covet Garden and the Strand, is easy to find. But there is no number 17 on the street and no blue plaque, and none of the business people in the neighborhood seem to know anything about its Van Gogh association.
However, two years later, the gallery moved around the corner to 25 Bedford Street. This later became the shop of the London tailor, Moss & Co., where in 1989 (the very year the building was demolished) I rented a tuxedo to attend the Royal Premiere of the James Bond movie, License to Kill. It’s a small world.
While working in the city, Vincent lodged in a private home at 87 Hackford Road in Brixton, where he fell madly in love with his landlady’s daughter and was devastated when she did not reciprocate. The row house looks much as it did in the 1870s. His room was on the top floor facing the street.
87 HACKFORD ROAD, BRIXTON
Vincent’s religious mania began after this romantic rejection and his performance at work deteriorated until he was called back to the main Paris branch for salvaging, then fired. But he promptly returned to England to work at a boarding school for boys in the seaside town of Ramsgate.
That school at 6 Royal Road has been replaced by an ugly apartment block but the area around it looks like it might have leaped out of a Dickens novel and the terraced house where Vincent boarded at 11 Spencer Square is still standing (with a blue plaque).
He left a detailed drawing of the view of Royal Road and the sea from the school, thus Ramsgate is the first of the many places on the trail where
you can stand in or near his footsteps as he executed a work of art. And the view from that spot is largely unchanged.
After Vincent had been at Ramsgate only two months, the school moved to the village of Isleworth, on the Thames above London. Vincent went with it (walking the eighty miles), but soon quit to take a job at another school run by a minister who was sympathetic to his new ambition of becoming a preacher.
Under this man’s tutelage, he actually preached several sermons in his guttural English, one of which opened with lines of scripture that could be the motto of his (and your) journey: “We are pilgrims and strangers upon earth -- we come from distant places and we travel towards distant lands.”
The Methodist churches where Vincent preached at Richmond, Petersham and Turnham Green have all vanished, but the school in Isleworth where he lived and worked at 160 Twickenham Road (Holme Court) was restored in 2002 by English Heritage and is now luxury flats.
In 1875, while he was still an art dealer, Vincent’s sister Anna joined him in England and they briefly lived together, first in the Brixton house, then at Ivy Cottage, 395 Kennington Road, also in South London. The cottage was demolished in 1895 and no plaque marks the spot.
Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, COURTAULD GALLERY, LONDON
Sister Anna soon found a job teaching French in Welwyn, a Hertfordshire village north of London. Vincent visited her here, probably twice, walking the eighteen miles from Isleworth. Rose Cottage, her residence on Church Street, proudly carries a blue plaque.
Curiously, many of the cottage’s later residents have claimed it’s haunted by Vincent’s ghost. Why the ghost would want to trouble this agreeable and only tangential spot is hard to figure; but, in any case, this is the one stop on the trail that claims a supernatural connection.
While you’re in London, be sure to go to the National Gallery to see the most stunning of the Sunflowers and Vincent's Chair with His Pipe,
and to the Courtauld Gallery (not far from Bedford Street, just off the Strand) to see the more famous of his two Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear paintings.
RUIN OF THE MARCASSE MINE, WITH SLAGHEAP IN BACKGROUND
5. THE BORINAGE -- Belgium is the third country on the itinerary and the Eurostar high-speed train will take you to it (from London’s St. Pancras station) in a tad over two hours, arriving at Brussels’ Midi/Zuid station to follow the next manifestation of Vincent’s religious calling.
After he returned to Holland from England and then tried and abandoned that year-long effort to get into Amsterdam University, he attempted a shorter and less academically challenging route to the ministry by enrolling in Brussels’ Flemish Training School for Evangelical Preachers.
But after toiling most of the fall of 1878 at it, he learned he didn’t really need a diploma to be a minister in Belgium, so he dropped out and signed up with a missionary group to preach in the Borinage, a desperately poor coal-mining region in Southern Belgium near the French border.
Nothing remains from that first Brussels period -- neither the house in the suburb of Laken where he
boarded nor the school on the Place Saint-Catherine where he studied -- but thirty-two miles to the south the Van Gogh pilgrim hits pay dirt in the Borinage.
The mines have closed and the slagheaps are now attractive green hillsides, but the area -- still one of Europe’s most economically depressed -- is so full of desolate charm, and so evocative of Vincent’s two years of Christ-like ministry to the coalminers, that it gives you goose bumps.
The entry point is the city of Mons, just northeast of the Borinage. For non-French speakers, this station of the trail may be the hardest to navigate because the places are well off the beaten track, English is not widely spoken and the natives seem blissfully unaware of their Van Gogh heritage.
But I handed the addresses over to an honest-looking taxi driver outside my hotel and, for fifty Euros, made a deal with him to take me to all the Van Gogh Borinage sites in one three-hour drive. Though he knew almost nothing about the artist’s time here, this worked out perfectly.
For sheer atmosphere, the most memorable of these sites is the house where Vincent lodged in the village of Wasmes, which survives at 221 Rue Wilson as a dilapidated relic in a rundown neighborhood of converted miner’s shacks that looks like a set from How Green Was My Valley.
BEHIND 221 RUE WILSON, WASMES
It’s the spookiest place you’ll find on the trail: boarded up, falling down, overgrown with weeds. A true ghost house with a corroded plaque commemorating Vincent’s stay. Behind it are the ruins of the Marcasse coal mine, which he bravely descended to experience what the miners did every day.
I bravely defied the danger-no-trespassing signs on the house to enter through an opening in the backyard fence. It was like walking through an unfortunate London townhouse after the Blitz. Vincent’s room was up the splintery stairs but I decided not to risk my life to stand in it.
Somewhere in the jungle of vegetation and debris of the backyard there was once a bare wooden hut where Vincent, after already giving away most of his possessions at the crest of his Christ-identification, lived like a castaway for several weeks of self-martyrdom.
There are plans to renovate the house (and what’s left of the Marcasse mine) into a museum and, by the time you read this, the glorious ruin may look like a Starbucks. If so, it’ll be a shame because this is one place on the Road to Auvers where you can actually feel like an explorer into the past.
Another structure Vincent occupied here, closer to Mons in the village of Cuesmes, is already a museum: the Maison Vincent van Gogh, 3 Rue de Pavilion. This was where he was residing when he was dismissed by the Pharisees of the Comité d’Evangélisation for his “overzealous” ministry.
At first, he continued to work as an evangelist without pay, but gradually he fell into apathy and then finally decided he’d had it with religion. At age twenty-seven, within these very walls, he decided to become an artist, and for the rest of his life he pursed that new goal without once looking back.
This scene of the great turning point, a large Jane Eyre of a house which was turned into a museum in 1972, lies in a marshy area and battles seeping water with dehydrators humming in the hallways. The wing where Vincent roomed was torn down long ago, but the setting is otherwise authentic, and dramatic.
There’s a separate museum building with mementos of the area's coalmining era and one of the drawings made while living
MAISON VINCENT VAN GOGH,
in the house, The Diggers. A procession of display signs chronicling the stages of Van Gogh’s career lines the path from the museum to the house.
After this decision, Vincent returned to Brussels and enrolled in its Académie des Beaux-Arts. You can still see the Academy, but the only other remains of this six-months here is the studio-space at 8 Rue Traversière he shared with his friend, Anthon van Rappard -- now a hostel renamed, of course, the Centre Vincent van Gogh.
6. NUENEN -- From Brussels, the now-dedicated artist moved on to Etten, The Hague and Drenthe (all of which you’ve already seen) and then, to save money, he decided to move in once again with his estranged parents in his father’s new posting in the Brabant village of Nuenen.
This could be easily visited on that earlier drive through Brabant but the village represents such a distinct stage of his career, so much of his era in it has been preserved and it’s so easy to reach (just outside the city of Eindhoven, sixty miles from Brussels) that it’s worth saving until now.
Nuenen is where, in a prolific two-year period between 1883 and 1885 that climaxed with the sudden death of his father, Vincent first emerged as a painter, first glimpsed the exciting possibilities of color and produced his first masterpiece, The Potato Eaters.
In recent years, it has unofficially renamed itself “Van Gogh Village Nuenen,” and staked out an outdoor-museum walk with information columns that guide the visitor through the Vincent sites with recorded commentary, in three languages, accessible by the push of a button.
For the first time on the Van Gogh Trail, there’s things to see that are associated with specific and memorable paintings: houses, churches, streets, windmills, watermills, the foundation of the old tower he painted a dozen times, the cottage setting of The Potato Eaters.
His father’s church, captured in the painting, Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen (which was famously stolen from the Van Gogh Museum in 2002, and is still missing), looks even more like something from a fairy tale than the dollhouse church of Zundert.
The parsonage where he lived off-and-on with his parents is still occupied by the local protestant minister and supposedly off-limits. But I crept into its backyard to see the laundry annex that was Vincent’s first Nuenen studio. There’s a plaque on it so I figure they must expect this.
To the south, and bordering the town park, is the much larger Catholic Holy Clemens Church, where in an adjoining (and, sadly, now demolished) building Vincent rented a second studio and, from the spring of 1884 to the winter of 1885, did his most important work in Nuenen.
The museum-walk also includes two Van Gogh statues, the grave of his father, a taste of the surrounding countryside (now a nature preserve), and the beautifully kept-up house next door to the parsonage that was the home of Vincent’s tragic Nuenen girlfriend, Margot Begemann.
NUENEN PARSONAGE, FROM THE SIDE ALLEY
Across from the parsonage, one of the former municipal buildings (29 Berg) has been converted into the “Vincentre,” a state-of-the-art interactive museum to Vincent’s years in Nuenen, offering the visitor what its brochure calls “The Van Gogh Experience.”
And if that sounds like the hype of a cheesy tourist trap, be assured that the Vincentre delivers on its advertising. Vincent’s world in Nuenen of the 1880s comes alive in a gauntlet of high-tech displays as imaginative than anything you might find in the Smithsonian.
The whole experience of this beautiful and prosperous Dutch village (much more prosperous now than then) is so orderly and serene that it ends up being deceiving. Because Vincent’s time here was disorderly and contentious: two years of battling his parents, his brother (by mail) and much of the town.
As informative as the experience is, it’s also full of unanswered questions. For instance, whether or not he fathered a child with his Potato Eaters’ model, Gordina de Groot. He was accused of it, and some biographers accept it as fact, while others say absolutely not. We’ll never know.
The entire time Vincent lived in Nuenen his intention was always to move on, in the next month or so, to the artistically happening Belgian city of Antwerp, where he hoped he could start selling his work. In November, 1885, seven months after the death of his father, he finally made the move.
He found a room in a building still standing at 224 Lange Beeldekensstraat and enrolled at the tuition-free Royal Academy of Art. He also consulted a certain Dr. A. Cavenaile at 2 Hollandstraat and was prescribed bath treatments which he took at the nearby Stuyvenberg Hospital.
SITE OF THE POTATO EATERS COTTAGE
The dogged British journalist Ken Wilkie uncovered this medical information in the 1970s and deduced so convincingly from it that Vincent, and Theo as well, suffered from syphilis that this contention is now accepted as fact by virtually all Van Gogh scholars.
However, we might note here that this supposition, which conveniently “explains” so much about the brothers’ tragedy, has never been proven. No medical record of either Van Gogh exists that mentions the disease. It’s just one more in a universe of possibilities.
Despite butting heads with the faculty and coming in dead last in the school’s quarterly artistic competition, Vincent stayed in Antwerp for three months that produced eight paintings and many drawings. Then, without warning him, he joined Theo in Paris. He would never see the Low Countries again.
7. PARIS -- Not much is known about Van Gogh’s first period in the City of Light, when he was a young art dealer and Goupil called him back from London in 1874 to work in its Paris branch at 9 Rue Chaptel for a few months. It’s not even known where he lived. So there’s not much to see from that interlude.
But the world of his second period, when he came to Paris as an artist in 1886, is as amazingly intact as the ruins of Pompeii. Almost every building he knew or painted in that two-year stay still stands in Montmartre, and is easy to find on a self-guided walking tour.
VINCENT GROUPIES, OUTSIDE 54 RUE LEPIC
This includes all three apartments he shared with Theo: at 25 Rue Victor Massé, just off Place Pigalle; at 54 Rue Lepic, on the Montmartre slope; and at 8 Cité Pigalle, a narrow cul-de-sac below Place Pigalle, where Theo lived after his marriage and Vincent visited him twice in the summer of Auvers.
The most visited of these is the Rue Lepic building, where Vincent roomed in the spacious, top-floor flat for most of his Paris time (and painted View of Paris from Vincent’s Room in the Rue Lepic) but the Cité Pigalle place, a vital setting to the Mystery of Auvers, is by far the most intriguing.
Also viewable are the sites of the art-supply store of his friend, Père Tanguy, at 14 Rue Clauzel; the Goupil branch at 5 Boulevard Montmartre where Theo worked; and, on the Boulevard de Clichy, Le Tambourin (No. 62), his favorite dive, and Corman’s Studio (No. 104), where he took lessons.
You’ll also want to climb (or take the funicular) to the top of the Montmartre butte to seek out the many city views Vincent painted from these heights, and to see le Moulin de Blute-Fin, a windmill, now converted into a restaurant, that Vincent painted from a dozen different angles.
Another Montmartre restaurant you might want to inspect on your walk is the Auberge de la Bonne Franquette at 2 Rue des Saules: a four-hundred-year-old Bohemian haunt Vincent depicts in La Guingette, one of the more colorfully abstract of his otherwise mostly realistic Paris canvases.
If the Paris period is of particular interest you could also take the métro to the northwestern suburb of Asnières (now called Asnières-sur-Seine), where Vincent painted extensively in the spring of 1887. There’s nothing specific to see but the area retains a few pockets of its former charm.
For devotees of the Mystery of Auvers, a highlight of the Paris stop is the Musée d’Orsay and the paintings of the Gachet Endowment that were contested in the 1955 forgery scandal:
MOULIN DE LA GALETTE
With so much to savor Van Gogh-wise in this capital of culture it’s ironic that we know next to nothing about what was happening in his head during his time here. Since Theo was living down the hall, he wrote few letters and what we know has to be deduced from other sources.
This amounts to educated guesswork. All we know for sure is that he painted some two hundred canvases, his palette further brightened as he absorbed the influences of Impressionism and in February, 1888, something inspired him to pack up his painting materials and hop on a train for Provence.
the Portrait of Dr. Gachet, The Church at Auvers, Mademoiselle Gachet in the Garden and Dr. Gachet’s Garden.
The D’Orsay has other headliner Van Goghs (including the stunning Starry Night over the Rhône) and its Gachet Collection has a non-Van Gogh painting that figures into the mystery of his death: Armand Guillaumin’s Reclining Nude, which he and Dr. Gachet argued over shortly before the shooting.
You may also want to see the sites of the two asylums where Theo was locked up under mysterious circumstances before his Utrecht death: the Maison Dubois (now the Hôpital Fernand Widal), 200 Rue de Faubourg St-Denis (near the Gare de Nord); and the Maison Blanche, 16 Avenue Lamballe, in Passy, since 1945 the Turkish Embassy.
A final Parisian stop, and a must-see, is the Musée Rodin, which has perhaps the city’s most lovely museum setting and owns three spectacular Van Goghs: Avenue of Plane Trees near the Arles Station, Arles: View from the Wheatfields and one of his two portraits of Père Tanguy.
8. ARLES -- Why did Vincent flee Paris so impulsively? No one knows. Why did he get off the train in this particular sun-drenched Provençal town? His nephew believed he was lured by an enticing description of Arles in that previously mentioned Dutch novel, Max Havelaar. But this is only a guess.
Whatever drove him here, however, it resulted in art history’s most fateful meeting of artist and locale. This is where the thirty-five-year-old Vincent quickly found the full flowering of his style and then, after producing two-hundred masterpieces in fifteen months, cracked up.
SITE OF THE YELLOW HOUSE, PLACE LAMARTINE
Arles can now be reached in just four hours from Paris on the TGV train, it’s probably the most knee-jerk evocative and most visited of all Van Gogh pilgrimage sites, and it strangely manages to be, for most devotees, both a disappointment and better than they expected.
Gone are all three places he lived: the Hotel Carrel at 30 Rue de la Cavalerie; the Café de la Gare at 30 Place Lamartine; and, most painfully, the legendary “Yellow House” he shared with Paul Gauguin at 2 Place Lamartine (all accidentally destroyed by U.S. bombers in WWII).
The closest thing to a surviving Vincent habitation is the hotel behind the toilet-less Yellow House (now called the Hotel Terminus Van Gogh) that allowed him to regularly use its facilities; and the only original Van Gogh painting anywhere in Provence (Railway Carriages) is twenty-three miles away in Avignon.
The public gardens in front of the Yellow House that he enjoyed so much and painted so often have also all vanished. And so, in a larger sense, has the splendid isolation that must have been a great part of the attraction to him. Arles seems to be overrun with tourists all year round.
But the sun still shines, the colors still overwhelm and the walled town, now pedestrian-only, retains its medieval charm and Roman ruins. There’s also much of Vincent’s world here that is intact, and easy to see: A yellow line in the pavement leads you from place to place.
You can view the former street of brothels he frequented on the Rue de Récollets; the former town hospital (now the Espace Van Gogh) where he recuperated after cutting off his earlobe; and the painting sites of such prismatic glories as The Yellow House, Café Terrace at Night and Starry Night Over the Rhone.
That famous ear mutilation is, of course, at the center of his enigma. Why did he do it? Hundreds of theories
1 RUE DU BOUT D'ARLES
have been advanced and whole books of speculation have been written. But no one knows. Whatever the reason, it turned out to be the best public-relations gimmick any artist ever conceived.
After the amputation, he walked the bloody object from the Yellow House to a brothel at No. 1 Rue du Bout d’Arles, where he handed it to a prostitute named Rachel (who promptly fainted). The brothel site is unmarked but was probably one of the spaces on the northeast corner of the lane’s intersection with the Rue de Récollets.
People say the longer you stay in Arles, the more you’re apt to like it. As Vincent wrote Gauguin in 1888, “Perhaps Arles will disappoint you, if you come in mistral weather; but just wait... It is only in the long run that the poetry of this place penetrates.”
This was definitely true for me, and my recipe for the best experience here is to book a room in-town, and allow at least two days to do nothing but wander the winding streets, sample the exquisite restaurants and soak up the special light, color and laid-back energy.
FORMER ARLES HOSPITAL, FROM VINCENT’S WARD
Just outside of Arles, you can find some of the fruit orchards Vincent painted in such profusion; Les Alyscamps, the old Roman burial grounds he captured (side-by-side with his brief roommate, Paul Gauguin) four times; and a recreation of the Langlois Bridge, another favorite subject he tackled multiple times.
And further afield, in the Arles hinterland, there’s the agricultural plain of La Crau with its fields of sunflowers and lavender, the ruins of the abbey of Montmajour, and the seaside town of Saintes-Maries de la Mer, where he spent a week painting “the blue sea and the blue sky.”
9. SAINT-RÉMY-DE-PROVENCE -- After more psychotic episodes ended his Arles period, Vincent voluntarily committed himself to the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, just outside this town twenty miles northeast of Arles. As a Van Gogh destination, it too is both a disappointment and better than you expect.
Deserted and open to tourists all through the postwar era (Lust For Life filmed here in 1955), the place has since reopened as a deluxe mental hospital. Thus the interior, with Vincent’s room, his studio and the walled garden area where he did much of his painting are all now off-limits.
The old monastery church is open to the public (its pathway planted with irises) and there's a recreation of Vincent's room (with a view approximating what
VINCENT’S VIEW OF
he had) and a small museum, with reproductions of some of the one hundred-and-forty paintings he dashed off while institutionalized here.
But it’s frustrating because all the good stuff is on the other side of the high wall. I found a garbage can that I could stand on to jump-and-clasp the top of the wall and then pull myself up for a peek at the garden and its central fountain. But an angry guard came rushing up to chase me away.
Outside the inhabited area, St-Rémy is a more fulfilling attraction. The physical setting, in the jagged foothills of the Alpilles, is deliciously bleak and gothic, and a winding trail has display signs showing the sites Vincent painted when he was allowed to venture outside the hospital.
If you hike around this area for an hour or so you can still find at least one pristine example of every motif Vincent painted in these environs: quarries, ravines, mountain views, hilltop cottages, expansive wheatfields, twisted olive groves, towering cypress trees.
As you walk through this Van Gogh-ish world, it’s hard not to ponder the strange nature of that madness which drove him here. More than one hundred medical treatises have been written over the past century speculating on it with nothing close to a consensus of opinion.
The attacks he suffered were savage, and well documented, but that hasn’t stopped a number of biographers from suspecting he half-feigned the madness that gave him a monastic retreat for the most productive year of his career. But, as always with this enigma-wrapped-in-a-riddle, we can never know.
A mile or so away from the asylum is the town of St-Rémy, the birthplace of Nostradamus, which Vincent visited several times and captured in his striking canvas,
The Road Menders. The town’s Estrine Museum of Contemporary Art has two rooms devoted to Van Gogh’s sojourn in the area.
Just down the road from the asylum, you’ll also want to check out the ruins of the Roman town
PAINTING SITE OF Entrance to a Quarry
of Glanum, with its famous Les Antiques: two stunning monuments (a mausoleum and France’s oldest triumphal arch) that Vincent must have seen a hundred times but apparently had zero interest in painting.
THE RAVOUX INN
10. AUVERS-SUR-OISE -- After his year in St-Rémy, Vincent briefly rejoined Theo in Paris and then moved on to this village twenty miles to the north. His illness, whatever it was, seemed to be over, but seventy days later -- after painting seventy more masterpieces -- he would be dead.
What happened? Even though he claimed it, all the evidence screams that he did not commit suicide. Some
unknown party shot him on a sweltering Sunday afternoon in late July, 1890, and, for whatever reason, Vincent went to his grave protecting his killer’s identity.
To explain this, numerous theories have been advanced: some convincing, others less so; some heartbreaking, others downright absurd; some with compelling evidence, others with no evidence at all. But what really happened on that July day is likely to remain art history’s most intriguing mystery.
Auvers could not be a more perfect setting for such a puzzle. Only an hour away from Paris, it’s more eerily frozen in Vincent’s time than Zundert or even Nuenen -- and it’s likely to remain so forever now that the whole town has been landmarked and incorporated into the Vexin Français National Park.
With no hotels, it’s blissfully free of tourists most of the year, and it may be the only hamlet in France that actually has less population now than it did in 1890. Moreover, by some fluke of nature or miracle of God all its Van Gogh sites have been preserved.
STEPS LEADING UP TO THE GACHET VILLA
The Twilight Zone experience begins the minute you arrive, especially if you come by train and step out of the station to see the Ravoux Inn on the tiny main square just a few hundred feet away and instantly find yourself surrounded by display signs noting Van Gogh painting sites.
The inn is now a restaurant that specializes in provincial French cooking, but it contains a museum to Vincent’s Auvers summer and the garret room in which he died is maintained as a shrine, with only a few visitors at a time allowed to climb the seventeen steps to stand in its hallowed silence.
As the story goes, no one wanted to stay in the room after the “suicide,” and it was never rented out again. So it’s stayed pretty much as it was the night Vincent departed it. The built-in cabinets are original. You can still see the tiny holes in the wall where he hung his pictures.
It’s extraordinary that they allow you to experience the room more or less by yourself, and to remain in it as long as you like. It doesn’t take too much imagination to see him lying there for all those hours, the life slowly draining out of him, Theo sobbing at his side.
THE TWIN GRAVES
The villa of Dr. Gachet is also maintained as a museum and to get there, you leave the inn and follow the same chestnut tree-lined path that inspired Vincent to write on his first day here, “Auvers is very beautiful... profoundly beautiful, it is the real country, characteristic and picturesque.”
After a twenty-minute walk and a steep flight of stairs to the entrance of the three-story stone house, you can see the rooms where Vincent the out-patient dined with the doctor, painted his daughter at the piano, argued with him over the Guillaumin painting.
Outside the house, on both flanks, are more painting sites, and, in an enclosed backyard that butts up against the near-vertical hillside, there’s the very picnic table on which the doctor rested his elbow as Vincent captured him in what many consider the Mona Lisa of the twentieth century.
From the villa, you can wind your way back to the village center and see a dozen other painting sites: houses, vineyards, the stately Château d’Auvers looking down on the town, then the town hall, the garden of the artist Charles-François Daubigny, the skiffs on the Oise River below.
BEHIND THE CHÂTEAU D’AUVERS
Depending on your interest in the various murder scenarios, you might find the corner of Rue Carnot and Rue Boucher, where one Auvers resident later told his daughter he saw Vincent enter a farmyard that Sunday afternoon, and which some historians contend could have been the scene of the crime.
Eventually, though, the force of destiny will pull you up to the great plateau above the town that the weight of evidence still says is the most likely shooting site, along the narrow pathway he painted with Japanese pedestrians, past a field he painted in the rain, past the Auvers church he painted as a wobbly mirage.
Not far beyond the church, perched on the lonely edge of the great plateau, is the tiny Auvers cemetery, with its graves of Vincent and Theo (who was reburied here twenty-four years after his own mysterious demise so the brothers could be together in death as they had been in life).
THE PATH TO THE WHEATFIELD
Most days of the year, you can have this scene entirely to yourself and I defy anyone to gaze upon it without a choke of emotion. The twin markers. The village below. The wheatfields beyond the cemetery wall “boundless like a sea.” No icon of history ever had a simpler or more fitting memorial.
But this is not the end of the Van Gogh Trail. That comes outside the cemetery and further along the plateau at a display sign that identifies the spot where Vincent stood as he painted Wheatfield with Crows, the painting Simon Schama says “started modern art.”
How can it be that so little has changed in this incredibly dramatic vista during the past century-and-a-quarter? The plain still stretches to infinity. The fields are still planted with wheat. The crows still circle the sky. The paths still diverge in the distance.
This panorama may not be his actual last painting or the shooting site. But, for much of the world, it is both. A symbol of all Vincent is to us: the comforting miracle of genius, the beautiful pathos of a tortured heart, the bottomless mystery of every human life.