Seeing Europe through Van Gogh’s eyes

/ New Delhi
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2020 marks 130 years since the Dutch maestro Vincent van Gogh’s death. In these 130 years, his paintings have inspired countless artists and art enthusiasts to scramble for a map.

Billowing skies with swooning sunflowers and the lush green olive groves of the Provence. The Starry Nights, one of the most famous works brought to life by the 19th century Dutch artist, Vincent Van Gogh, transports the viewers to another universe. Besides the magical touch of Van Gogh’s paintbrush, one of the main reasons behind the popularity is that it was created by the maestro at a time when his mental health had deteriorated rapidly.

The location of Van Gogh’s most famous paintings make an arc from Belgium and the Netherlands through Provence in the south of France. Some of them are wonderfully unchanged, others have been eroded by time and tourism, but they all offer a glimpse into the artists mind, plus another excellent excuse to explore some of the loveliest places in Europe.

Nuenen, Netherlands

Nuenen hasn’t changed in all those years since Van Gogh first painted it. It is a calm little Dutch town where nothing much dramatically changes, thus its of no surprise that the location and sites that Van Gogh got his inspiration from are well preserved. In this quiet little town, about 130 km due south of Amsterdam, Van Gogh completed his first major work. Having spent his early life travelling between the Netherlands, England and France, he stayed at Nuenen to spend a couple of years avidly sketching farm workers. His breakthrough work, The Potato Eater (1885) was drawn here, a complex, earthy depiction of a family settling in for a meal. It is a smouldering image, one that brims with life. Nuenen’s major attraction for fans of the artist is the Van Gogh Village that is rich in stories about his early life and has an archive of his letters. It has an outdoor museum that leads a trail through various sights in Nuenen that he sketched. For the art lover who wants to begin at the beginning of Van Gogh’s artistic career, Nuenen is a must.

Antwerp, Belgium

Shortly after his famous painting Skull with a Burning Cigarette was released in 1886, news of his failing mental health started to surface. Though the details of the inspiration behind this painting remain hazy, it’s thought this macabre work was a result of Van Gogh’s frustration as a student in the Antwerp’s Academy of Art. Some see this work as a swipe at artistic dogma. For others, it alludes to Van Gogh’s poor health. During his time in Antwerp, Van Gogh was enfeebling himself on a diet of bread and tobacco. He began to seek solace in absinthe. All the while he worked voraciously, sketching the city sights. Though today’s Antwerp is significantly different from what Van Gogh saw, some sights still stay the same, from the Het Steen Fortress on the banks of the Schelde, to Grote Market – Van Gogh faithfully sketched both of these well-preserved sights.

Provence, France

In Provence, about 800 km south of Paris, the air is thick with the fragrance of lavender. Cicadas as big as a thumb whirl across wheat fields that blush gold with the setting sun. Here, in the land of lavender and wine, mostly around Arles and Saint-Remy-de-Provence, the artist painted with the most vibrant colours of his career. It was at Arles that Van Gogh’s career saw the highest growth as he decided to paint many of his paintings here. Van Gogh lavishes his canvas with the famous cypress and olive groves of Provence. In depicting a city scene in Cafe Terrace at Night (1888), he hinted at the excitement of Arles’ night life. The same year Van Gogh painted A Starry night over the Rhones (1888), whose light dappled view remains the same today. This was also the time when Van Gogh’s mental health dramatically relapsed. Despite his distress, and voluntary commitment to the Saint Paul-de-Mausole asylum in nearby Saint-Remy, his works from this period are suffused with Provence’s natural beauty – especially in the celestial swirl of his famous work The Starry Night (1889).

“Van Gogh has been an inspiration all my life, he has encouraged me to pursue Arts and Aethetics for my PhD. So, when I got a chance to go to Arles and actually see the places where he drew his masterpiece, it was a dream come true. Arles looks like a painting on its own and added to that the knowledge that Van Gogh was here makes it that much more special,” Polina Weber, a PhD scholar from JNU, recounts to India Outbound.

Auvers-sur-Oise, France

The last days of the famous artist were intense and solitary. The artist followed his friend, doctor and muse Paul Gachet to Auvers-sur-Oise, about 35 km north-west of Paris, where he spent his remaining days painting churches. Here he painted the famous Church at Auver (1889), its sweeping lines create a wild, almost ominous version of the tidy edifice that still stands here today. Though there’s a debate as to what his final work of art was whether it was The Wheatfield with the Crows where there is an outpour of his melancholy on the canvas with its melancholic colour palette or solitary subjects or some other. Truth is his final creative outpourings vary wonderfully in tone, from pensive portraits of his doctor and torrid thunderclouds to lush Daubigny’s garden. These paintings were almost a window to Van Gogh’s mind and the falling mental health. Auvers-sur-Oise surprisingly remains unchanged. The location where his doctor stayed or where Vincent Van Gogh breathed his last is still standing there to let visitors imagine the great maestro’s presence amidst them.

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