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Van Gogh in Auvers

The artist's tumultuous last days

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On the evening of July 27, 1890, Vincent van Gogh stumbled back to his tiny room at the Auberge Ravoux in Auvers-sur-Oise, just north of Paris. When the innkeeper looked in on the artist, alarmed by his groans, he found van Gogh doubled over in pain from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. The innkeeper, Ravoux, summoned the village doctor and van Gogh requested that his personal doctor, Paul-Ferdinand Gachet, come as well.

After examining the patient, the doctors concurred that it was not possible to remove the bullet. So at van Gogh's request, Gachet filled a pipe, lit it and placed it in the artist's mouth. Van Gogh puffed quietly, while the doctor sat attentively at his side. The two had developed a warm friendship during the ten weeks van Gogh had been in Auvers.

Van Gogh's brother Theo had arranged for Gachet, who specialized in homeopathy and nervous disorders, to care for him during his recovery after van Gogh moved to Auvers on May 20, 1890 from the asylum in Saint-Rémy. The painter Camille Pissaro had recommended Gachet to Theo because of the doctor's affinity for artists. Gachet's circle of friends included Cézanne, Pissarro and other Impressionist painters, and he avidly collected art. Gachet also enjoyed painting and engraving, signing his works with the name Paul van Ryssel.

With his red hair, Gachet also possessed an uncanny resemblance to van Gogh, which only fostered a stronger bond between the two men. Van Gogh noted to his youngest sister, Wilhelmina, "I have found a true friend in Dr. Gachet, something like another brother, so much do we resemble each other physically and also mentally."

Tempering the rapport, though, was van Gogh's observation that the "eccentric" doctor suffered from "nervous trouble" just as serious as the artist's. But despite these initial reservations, van Gogh soon began visiting Gachet's home regularly, sharing multi-course meals and painting portraits of the doctor and his daughter. One of these portraits, titled the Portrait of Dr. Gachet, is among van Gogh's most famous paintings and emphasizes the physician's melancholic nature more than his medical expertise. Describing the portrait to Gauguin, van Gogh wrote the doctor possessed "the heartbroken expression of our time."

The artist's productivity soared in his new surroundings. Indeed, some catalogs have attributed some 70 works to van Gogh during his time in Auvers. As he wrote to Theo and his sister-in-law, Jo, he found Auvers to be "profoundly beautiful, it is the real country, characteristic and picturesque."

But by July, intimations of trouble crept into his correspondence and canvasses. Describing in a letter to Theo several scenes of wheat fields "under troubled skies" that he had recently painted, van Gogh commented that it didn't take much effort "to express sadness and extreme loneliness." Some of his anxiety might have been fed by recent news that Theo, who financially supported him, was experiencing problems with his employers and thinking about leaving to start his own business. The situation must have exacerbated van Gogh's growing feelings of distress.

Although it is not exactly clear why van Gogh chose to end his life, his intention to do so in that Auvers wheat field was unmistakable. While Gachet attended to his wounded friend, the doctor expressed his wish to save him. "Then it has to be done all over again," replied van Gogh. At some point during the two days that van Gogh lay dying, Gachet sketched his prostrate friend.

Theo heard the news the next day and rushed to Auvers to be by his brother's side. Comforted by Theo's presence, van Gogh told his brother, "I wish I could pass away like this." They were among his last words. He died on July 29 at 1:30 a.m.

A small group of friends and family attended his funeral, abundant with sunflowers. Among the mourners was Gachet, who spoke a few words. "He was an honest man . . . and a great artist," Gachet eulogized. "He had only two goals, humanity and art."

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