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In the Footsteps of Vincent van Gogh

Many artists will name at least one great master in his field who inspired him. For my dad, there are a few. When I was growing up, Pablo and Vincent were names that often came up when my dad was discussing art. At first, I was a bit humored and surprised by his casual way of naming the men I thought of as Picasso and van Gogh, believing such immediacy to represent a crossing of some invisible line that might be mistaken for a lack of respect. It took me some time to realize how wrong I was about that. His familiarity, it turned out, was merely a sign of his passion for these artists’ works, esteem for their efforts, gratitude for their inspiration. Their works had reeled my dad in, nurturing his creative spirit to the point that these men had become, in his heart, friends. So what other way do you address a friend, if not by their first name?

Our family travels have fortunately taken us to places associated with Picasso and van Gogh, notably in France and Spain. We visited Picasso’s ceramic studio in Mougins as well as his chateau and final resting place in Vauvenargues, both towns in the south of France. On a quick trip to Madrid, my dad at long last beheld Guernica in all its magnificence, visiting the masterpiece twice before we continued on our trip. But for all that Picasso represents great artistic success in one’s own lifetime, most people know that van Gogh is the tortured soul who struggled to be known at all. For this reason, it was always a dream of my dad’s—as well as mine—to make a pilgrimage to the town that Vincent van Gogh painted and eventually passed away in, just outside of Paris—the small town of Auvers-sur-Oise.

And so we did this past October. On a crisp autumn morning, we begin the trek from Paris, from metro to city train to tiny local train, humming through the Paris countryside until arriving at the humble little station of Auvers-sur-Oise. One might never guess the town’s artistic connections were it not for the collaboration of the tourism office and private citizens who have kept Vincent van Gogh’s memory alive. Through meticulous preservation and restoration of numerous sites around town affiliated with Vincent van Gogh, from signs marking scenes he painted to the preservation of the Ravoux Inn where he lived and eventually passed away, walking around Auvers-sur-Oise gives one the sensation of walking back in time.

We follow the shiny brass markers placed along the paved streets indicating van Gogh’s walking path to reach the town center in mere minutes, observing city hall on one side of the street and the Ravoux Inn on the other. With a table and chairs set up in front of the inn, complete with two glasses of red wine, it feels as though van Gogh might show up at any moment for a midday break from painting in the fields. We take the 30-minute tour upstairs in the little room where van Gogh lived for a few months before eventually passing away from his gunshot wound. The guide speaks with great speed and intensity, eager to usher us to the next room where we will watch a short film about van Gogh. But I can see that the stories mean little to my dad, and a film, although he will watch it, is quite unnecessary. He knows this story and all the others. He just wants to absorb being there. When he asks the guide if she can close the door to the little room, she looks confused and abruptly asks why. I smile in understanding. He’s not trying to break any rules or slow down the visit, he just wants to know what the room feels like—just how small it really is—with the door closed. In other words, how van Gogh must have felt in it.

Our tour is followed by lunch downstairs in what is now a beautiful French restaurant but was then a modest dining room for the inn’s boarders. As much as we delight in the seven-hour slow-cooked leg of lamb and tarte tatin and marvel at the way the sun shines through the beveled glass windows, we all know this is not the kind of luxury van Gogh tasted. It feels both special and sad to dine there, a sense of gratitude mingled with yearning. If we could, we’d offer to share our meal with our old friend.

After lunch, we venture to the actual sites van Gogh painted. We drop by Dr. Gachet’s house, a place so artfully preserved that it feels as if the doctor had merely stepped out for a moment. The garden clearly resembles the lush landscape van Gogh had depicted in his Madame Gachet in Her Garden, although a bit smaller. The signposts lead us to the church depicted in van Gogh’s celebrated The Church at Auvers, an obscure-looking yet commanding presence perched on a hill. Now closed to the public, the church has a solemn appearance that immediately makes one realize just how intensely van Gogh was capable of bringing a subtle subject to remarkably vivid life.

We follow the path into the golden wheat fields, a pale contrast to the stunning autumn tree leaves that have recently tinted into brilliant reds, yellows, and orange. At this point, the mood turns somber. As one sign indicates, van Gogh’s painting, Wheatfield with Crows, is widely speculated to be his very last painting. The field stretches to the horizon under a vast blue sky, gently leading to van Gogh’s final resting place. Just beyond the field is the town cemetery, where van Gogh is buried alongside his beloved brother, Theo. Locals place flowers on their loved ones’ tombs, and we do the same. I have chosen a bouquet of yellow and orange daisies I managed to find at the little grocery store next to the train station. The colors remind me of van Gogh’s palette, the very palette of autumn.

I look at my dad to see how he might react. At one point during our train ride, I suddenly feared the visit might upset him. The first time I visited Auvers-sur-Oise by myself, just a few months earlier, I was completely overwhelmed by emotion at the sight of the brothers’ tombstones, side-by-side and essentially fused into one as they are blanketed by intertwining branches, hidden under a bed of leaves. But my dad is very silent and thoughtful, what I understand as a quiet prayer of thanks to his friend, a man who deserved to be recognized for his talent and his dreams. With a sigh, we smile and slowly return to the train station.

Goodbye for now, Vincent.

And thank you.

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