In Auvers, searching for life in a haystack

Landmarks of art and a life fill the town where Van Gogh spent his last years

Not far from Paris lies Auvers-sur-Oise, a small town in the Ile-de-France. Here the Oise flows through a quiet landscape, joining the Seine farther downstream. There is the village church, the main square with its Bar Tabac, and, opposite, the town hall.

Once a place of exile for the Iranian leader Khomeini, the town owes its fame to Vincent van Gogh. The artist arrived at Auvers from a mental institution in southern France, "healthy, broad-shouldered, his expression lively and determined," as his sister-in-law later remembered.

He was met at the station by Paul Gachet, a local doctor who had arranged for a room in a nearby inn. In the past, Dr. Gachet had been host to Camille Pissarro and Paul Cézanne when both artists worked around Auvers.

"He took me to an inn," van Gogh wrote about Gachet to his brother Theo, "where they were asking 6 francs per day. [full board]. But I found one where I have to pay only 3.50 francs." That was the auberge (inn) of Père Ravoux in the town's main square.

Hardly acclimatized, the artist, an unceasing letter-writer, wrote to Theo that at Auvers he found "lush country at the moment ... no factories, but lovely greenery in abundance and well kept.... I am living a day at a time, the weather is so beautiful, and I am absorbed in my work." Absorbed in his work he certainly was, producing canvasses at the rate of almost one per day.

Down the street from Ravoux's auberge and slightly uphill stands the venerable village church of Notre-Dame, complete with flying buttresses and Romanesque arches. It served the artist for one of his most memorable paintings, and still today you might find an admirer standing there, sketch pad in hand, drawing the church from the same position as Van Gogh painted it.

In a small square below the church stands a statue of the painter Charles Daubigny. Wearing a beret and holding a palette, he is a reminder of all the artists who worked in this countryside. For painting river scenes, Daubigny kept a barge moored at the riverbank on which he travelled the Oise.

Go farther uphill along a lane and you come to the cemetery where the Van Gogh brothers found their final resting place.

Here you can contemplate the cemetery, the village church, and the wheat fields, all of which lie within a stone's throw of one another. It was here that the artist painted his last work, "Wheatfield With Crows," showing the birds suddenly taking flight above the golden ears of ripe wheat.

Tourists, who now throng the village to a much greater extent than they did a decade ago, are drawn to the former inn of Ravoux. It contains the reconstructed room in which the artist passed away, but also has a restaurant and an art gallery with Van Gogh's works.

Take a look at the mairie, the little town hall that stands across from Ravoux's auberge. It was sketched by the artist in black chalk, and for him bore a resemblance to his father's vicarage at Zundert, Holland. The sketch served as a study for a later oil painting, and both are considered reminders of his youth.

Van Gogh, who in his last burst of artistic expression, created many of the great works that now adorn the world's museums, wrote to his mother in June 1889: "I am quite certain that since I stopped drinking I have completed better works than ever.... Yet, life for me will remain lonely.... That's why I strive so hard, even if my work is little understood, but for me it is the link to the past and present."

• Auvers can be reached from Paris by train using the RER, Line A3 to Cergy-Préfecture and from there by bus. By car, take the A86 from the Porte Maillot, then the A15, and follow the D4 to Auvers.

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