The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam is about to open the first comprehensive exhibition devoted to the last stage of the artist’s career, his short stay in the village of Auvers-sur-Oise, 30 kilometres north-west of Paris. It was there that he shot himself on 27 July 1890, dying two days later.
There is always great interest in the last phase of a major artist’s life. Yet although Van Gogh’s two years in Provence have been much studied, until recently his Auvers period has been comparatively neglected.
The exhibition curators have meticulously dated all his surviving 74 Auvers paintings, determining that “by the end of six weeks, the total stood at roughly sixty paintings”. Excluding weekends, this works out at two a day, an amazing production. Perhaps growing depression (and the larger size of some of the later pictures) accounts for a fall-off in the following four weeks.
The Amsterdam and Paris museums have been astonishingly successful in corralling the loans. Of the 74 Auvers paintings, 48 will be included. The Van Gogh Museum has nine in its permanent collection and there are seven at the Musée d’Orsay, the latter from the early 1950s donation by Dr Paul Gachet, who cared for the artist in his last weeks. These Gachet works have only been lent very rarely, so the Amsterdam show will be an extremely unusual opportunity to see them in a wider context.
The remaining 32 Auvers paintings are from collections around the world. Seven are from private lenders, which means that they are rarely shown. These include Garden in Auvers-sur-Oise (June 1890), which is much more stylised than most of his landscapes, and Vase with Red Poppies, Cornflowers and Daisies (June 1890).
Strenuous efforts were made to try to unite all 13 of Van Gogh’s “double-square” canvases (0.5m x 1m). These large-scale works include many of his finest late paintings. Only two proved impossible to borrow: Marguerite Gachet at the Piano (June 1890, Kunstmuseum Basel) and Daubigny’s Garden (July 1890, Hiroshima Museum of Art).
Another loss was paintings from Russia, which were blocked after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The three Auvers works in Russian museums are Thatched Cottages(May 1890), White House at Night with Star (June 1890, both State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg) and Landscape with Carriage and Train (June 1890, Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow).
The greatest Auvers painting in private hands is the first version of the portrait of Dr Paul Gachet (June 1890). After selling for $82.5m in 1990, it was bought by a Japanese owner and later acquired by a mysterious European collector who has done their utmost to remain anonymous. Even with the very best contacts, this picture eluded the curators.
Another of the exhibition’s contributions to scholarship has been to track down the locations depicted in the landscape paintings.
Two of the places depicted in the “double-square” paintings have now been properly identified, thanks to new research by Wouter van der Veen. Rain - Auvers-sur-Oise (July 1890), at National Museum Wales, was painted from the other side of the River Oise near Méry, not from the wheatfields, as has often been assumed. Tate’s Farms near Auvers-sur-Oise (July 1890) is a scene in the hamlet of Cordeville. An 1887 photograph of the Cordeville location suggests that Van Gogh used artistic licence to add another building in the centre of his composition.
Along with the paintings, Van Gogh also produced nine large drawings and 48 smaller studies in Auvers, as well as filling a sketchbook. These can only be displayed occasionally, for conservation reasons, and most are hardly known by the public and have never been comprehensively studied as a group.
The most personal sketch is Baby in a Pram (June 1890). It probably depicts the artist’s four-month-old nephew, who had been named Vincent in his honour. The infant was brought to Auvers on a day visit to Auvers by his parents, Theo and Jo.
The comprehensive Amsterdam and Paris exhibitions are curated by Nienke Bakker, Louis van Tilborgh, Teio Meedendorp (all Van Gogh Museum) and Emmanuel Coquery (Musée d’Orsay). Their catalogue also tackles the question of Vincent’s fragile mental health and eventual suicide.
It was startling in 2011 when a biography of Van Gogh argued that he was shot by a 16-year-old boy in Auvers, René Secretan. The exhibition curators dismiss this as an entirely unfounded suggestion, a conspiracy theory: “When a person feels compelled to end their own life, the least they deserve is to be heard with empathy. Recognising signals and acknowledging pain always matters, also in the case of a historical figure.”
Had Van Gogh’s life not ended so tragically, how would his art have evolved after Auvers?
For more on the story of the artist’s last months, see my book Van Gogh’s Finale: Auvers and the Artist’s Rise to Fame.
Other Van Gogh news:
Both Christie’s and Sotheby’s are auctioning Van Gogh drawings of two men, both done at almost the same time and with the same dimensions. The drawings have each been in their respective families since the 1960s and have very rarely been exhibited.
Christie’s is offering Orphan man with a Top Hat in his left Hand in New York on 13 May, estimated at $400,000-$600,000. It has been in the family of the New York-based publicist Benjamin Sonnenberg since 1961.
Sotheby’s has Sower (Front View)(December 1882), which is estimated at $550,000-$650,000. It will come up for sale on 17 May, four days after the Christie’s sale.
Which will fetch more? Van Gogh’s orphan man (almshouse man) or his sower?