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Van Gogh April 14, 2010

Posted by jayocallahan in Adventures.

There are some artists who follow you through life. Van Gogh is one of those artists for me. When I was in college Van Gogh’s letters opened up a world. I loved his intensity, his love of color, literature and life. He inspired me. I wanted to create but that seemed a dream, an impossibility. In time I broke away from my job and began to write assuming I’d be a novelist. I spent the next seven years as a caretaker on a beautiful salt-water marsh and was telling my children hundreds and hundreds of stories.  I’d found my path, a path that has allowed me to explore the beauty and the pain of life.

Ten years ago I led a workshop in Provence with my friend Doug Lipman. Van Gogh’s letters drew us there.

Last Friday, April 9, my wife, Linda and I took the train from Paris to Auvers-sur-Oise, the last place Van Gogh lived and painted. We get off the train and see trees are just blooming and the tulips are out. Van Gogh arrived in Auvers-sur-Oise on 20 May 1890. I imagine the trees would have been fully green when he arrived and the forsythia and tulips would have passed. Linda and I find much in the village unchanged from Van Gogh’s time. There are flowers everywhere. We have a café crème at a tabac and the young man who brings us the coffee would have delighted Van Gogh. “Americans,” the server laughs, “I love Americans.” He is joyful as a clown and bounces with life.

Staircase to Van Gogh's room

At the visitor’s center we see a short video showing some photos of Auvers in the1890’s and paintings Van Gogh did at Auvers as well as short phrases from his letters. He wrote of the beauty of the country and his love of art and life. “It is so difficult to be simple,” Van Gogh, wrote which is poignant because he was living in a dark bedroom on the third floor of the Ravoux Inn. The bedroom was just big enough for a bed and chair; the walls were unpainted and cracked. The stairway to his room was very dark and we could almost hear Van Gogh’s footsteps as he left to paint each morning and return at night. He wrote that he hoped any portraits he did would look like apparitions in a hundred years. “Painting,” Van Gogh wrote, “is becoming more like music and less like sculpture.” This is the voice of a vibrant artist. But then he writes of the threat of being uprooted and says, “I did not need to go out of my way to experience sadness and extreme loneliness.”

This man who gave the world such beauty shot himself in Auvers on 27 July. His brother Theo was at Vincent’s side in that dark bedroom at the Ravoux Inn when Vincent died at one-thirty in the morning on July 29, 1890.

Church at Auvers by Van Gogh

After the visitors’ center, Linda and I walk up the curving road to the village graveyard. Vincent and Theo are buried side by side in very simple graves. The fields surrounding the graveyard are as they probably were in Van Gogh’s time.  The green wheat is a foot high; there is the smell of tilled earth. Spinach is growing. The sky is blue and the silence is broken by small birds.

After a picnic of cheese, tomato, baguette and a flan for dessert we walk down the hill and stop by the church, L’Eglsie D’Auvers, which Van Gogh painted. There is a funeral going on inside and we wait until it is over. Mourners leave wiping tears away. They’re sad and so am I.  Sad Vincent Van Gogh’s life was so lonely and so hard. I’m also deeply indebted to him for his letters, his inspiration, his paintings and his life.



1. Liz Weir - April 26, 2010

I share your love of Vincent, jay. When my daughter was 8 years old I took her to Paris and when we visited the Musée d’Orsay I told ehr she could choose any print to bring home. Of all the prints she chose a Van Gogh self portrait. i asked her why and she replied “Because he has an interesting face” – well said!

2. Bill Fenstemacher - April 26, 2010

I really enjoyed your sensitivity to and comments about Van Gogh. Thank you for the inspirational statement. Bill Fenstemacher

3. Paul Tamburello - April 27, 2010

Dear Jay,
Isn’t it a gift to connect with another human being who inspires you. Sometimes it’s hard to interpret exactly why the artist or author or actor or an everyman resonates somewhere between our hearts and our guts but you undeniably feel it when it happens. You certainly hit it right with your observation about ‘the beauty and pain of life’ – that’s certainly the realm of Vincent Van Gogh.

Haunting to think of him living in such darkness while he produced such aggressively vibrant color and style. Your comment “The green wheat is a foot high; there is the smell of tilled earth. Spinach is growing. The sky is blue and the silence is broken by small birds.” must have been observed by V and translated into oil based music while he walked through Auvers-sur-Oise.

I can only hope that he found someone with whom he could sit in the sunshine and eat cheese, tomato, baguette, and flan, but, maybe that’s asking too much.

Thanks for the lovely letter.

4. Anna Higgins - April 27, 2010

Dear Jay,

I loved reading about your trip. I felt I was walking those dark stairs with you and Linda, and in Paris I noticed all that style and the happiness of the sun. You’ve given me a mini-vacation before I start the laundry! Thanks to you and Van Gough…..I also thinks his work has great life an movement and vibrancy, the seeing of the energy that resides in all things, especially those in nature.
My fingers are now happily smudged with paint as I go to daily tasks.

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