Auvers sur Oise: The Original Impressionist Landscape

by Lesley Stern

I had an uncanny sense of deja vu when I first laid eyes on Auvers sur Oise thus I could not figure out why it breathed familiarity.  I then realized I had been entranced before by much of the scenery, which hung on the walls of major museums and was printed in art history books.

Van Gogh spent his final 90 days, painted 70 canvases and died here in Auvers, however, I did not know that this is where Impressionism was born.

Certainly Impressionism’s gestation period occurred in Paris, where artists like Manet, Pissarro, Monet, Renoir and Degas departed from the academic tradition of studio paintings by using “common” working people in bars, brothels and on the streets as subjects.   They scandalized the art world with their freer, fragmented brushstrokes and use of colors that radiated outside the lines of the forms they painted.

With the invention of metal tubes to preserve oil paints and the newly built railroad in the mid 19th century, the Impressionists were able to travel farther afield, starting in Argenteuil, Sannois, Asnires, Gennevillier.   They began to take their cues from nature, painting scenes of bathers, groups on picnics and boats on the Seine.  Monet’s “Impressionism, rising sun” painted in Argenteuil in 1874, baptized the movement, but it took several years to catch on.

At the invitation of Dr. Paul Gachet, an Auvers resident and homeopathic doctor for nervous disorders, with a keen interest in art and engraving, artists traveled to the Val D’Oise region (part of the Il de France) and soon began to settle here.

Corot and Daubigny were the pioneers.  Inspired by the beautiful countryside, the rolling hills, the natural light and the way the light and fog vapors played on the Oise river, they began to deviate from the dark posed paintings that were fashionable in Paris salons at the time and painted landscapes.  But unlike the Barbizon artists who tended towards romantic realism, they focused on more ordinary things, like green fields, apple trees, peasants and thatched cottages.  The exceptional light here created color contrasts and shadings that were originally scoffed at and reviled by the art community.

Soon other artists followed:  Pissarro, who settled in nearby Pontoise, Cezanne, Gauguin and of course, van Gogh.

By the time van Gogh arrived in 1890, the region’s Impressionist roots had already been firmly established.

Van Gogh’s early worship of painters like Corot and Daubigny coupled with Pissarro’s recommendation of Dr. Gachet, made van Gogh’s moving here almost inevitable. Just as inevitable, given Dr. Gachet’s limited skills as a physician (okay, he was a quack who pronounced van Gogh cured only a week before he killed himself) and van Gogh’s penchant for absinthe, which surely exacerbated his mental disorder (probably easily cured today with a prescription for Prozac) was van Gogh’s suicide.

But the astonishing fact about Auvers is how little it has changed since the days of the Impressionists.   And how much farther it seems than the mere 16 miles that distances it from Paris.

There are many private homes and modern middle-class dwellings which are very pleasant, sunny and filled with flowers.  And this in a countryside that is almost plump.  Right at present the development of a new society amidst the old is not at all disagreeable.  “There is quite an aura of well-being. Calm. . .no factories, only beautiful greenery, abundant and well kept.”  This description, written by Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo in May, 1890 still aptly describes Auvers today.

The streets are narrow and lined with quaint stone houses adorned with colorful shutters.  Flowers overflow from window boxes, gardens and patches along the roadside.  Twisting trails and stairways lead up to other narrow streets.  The only din is birds twittering, roosters crowing and the occasional braying of the town donkey.  The high rises and rioting Paris suburbs seem like a grim fairy tale from here.  And for all its history, the town and surroundings are remarkably free of tourists.   In fact, the main difference between van Gogh’s time and today is that the thatched roofs have been replaced with terracotta and the roads are now paved.

The main drag boasts a boulangerie, boucherie, a small grocery store, a pharmacy, a tabac/cafe, a few restaurants and of course, the Auberge Ravoux, the small inn and restaurant where van Gogh lived and died. His tiny room is open for viewing.

On Sundays and Thursdays the covered market comes alive with local vendors selling fish, meat, produce, flowers and other wares.  No Starbucks, McDonald’s or mall lies in sight.  Across the street from the Auberge Ravoux sits the Hotel de Ville (the town hall).  Now as then, it serves as the town municipal center and is instantly recognizable from van Gogh’s depiction of it over a century ago.

One can easily follow the steps van Gogh might have taken on an ordinary day.  A tourist can pick up a warm loaf of bread, some cheese, some patisseries and take them to the banks of the Oise for a picnic and watch the boats, swans and ducks float by.  Or dine with van Gogh (well, his statue, created by Ossip Zakdine) in the tiny gemlike public park across the street from the bakery.  Afterwards, it is only a quick stroll to the Musee Daubigny where one can view the latest exhibition, a touching fifteen minute film on van Gogh as well as the permanent show of engravings done by Gachet, Daubigny and Pissarro, among others.  The helpful office of tourism is also housed here.

Nearby lies the Atelier Daubigny–my personal favorite.  All the walls were painted by Daubigny and his family with scenes of forests, lakes, countryside and animals.   His daughter Cecile’s room is a little girls haven with colorful flowers and charming scenes from children’s books adorning the walls. Even if I had not already mentally photographed van Gogh’s rendering of Daubigny’s garden in the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, the actual garden is indelible.

Up the hill, the Chateau d’Auvers (also painted by van Gogh), offers typically grand French manicured gardens, lovely views of the Val D’Oise and a multi-media show called “Voyage au les temps des Impressionistes.”   The “voyage” takes visitors from Paris cafe society, to the Val D’Oise, to the beaches of Normandy following the path of the Impressionists.  I usually feel captive about halfway through most shows, but this one kept me captivated.

Further down the road is the house where Dr. Gachet lived. The painters spent a great deal of time here, painting and seeking treatment for their various disorders.    Gachet never cured them, but often accepted payment in the form of a treasure trove in art. His garden of medicinal herbs is still intact, if not used.  Additionally, his house and garden serve as the setting of paintings by Cezanne, Gauguin and van Gogh.

In the opposite direction lies L’Eglise de Notre Dam (the church of Auvers), one of van Gogh’s most famous subjects, now housed in the Musee D’Orsay.   Further up the hill are the famous wheatfields, the scene of one of van Gogh’s final and most ominous paintings, “Wheatfield with crows.”   Nearby, is the field where van Gogh shot himself in the stomach before staggering back to his room at the Auberge Ravoux, to die with his brother Theo at his side a day later.  Across the dirt road lies the cemetery where Vincent and Theo rest in peace with an occasional influx of mostly French and Japanese visitors.

And while van Gogh may be the most significant denizen of the region due to his prolific output during his time here and his untimely death, other painters are well represented.

The old road from Auvers to Pontoise  (about a one hour walk) juxtaposes views of the Val d’Oise: rolling fields, homes, orchards, the hermitage, and the Oise river twisting through the landscape with prints of those same views painted by the likes of Pissarro, Daubigny, Corot, Cezanne and van Gogh, over a century ago.   Pontoise may be the most changed from the Impressionists’ time.   But it remains interesting to see how the town today still is recognizable as Pissarro’s Pontoise.

Around every corner there seems to be a new painting, or a view that should be one.   Depending on the time of year, there is a lush varied greenery of spring, the colorful splotches of flowers in the summer, falls orange and red hues or the white veil of winter, all works of art in their own right.  I can only wonder what sort of spectacular paintings van Gogh might have done if he lived in Auvers during the fall, when the colors are almost violent in their beauty.

By taking the painters’ route, many familiar paintings by Corot, Daubigny and Daumier that were generically titled “The Haystack, River Bank and Country Road” originated here.

Other points of interest in the area include the Musee de l’Absinthe in Auvers, which traces the history of absinthe.   One can view displays ranging from art and posters first advertising, then demonizing the drink (think reefer madness).  There are also cartoons, articles, photographs and absinthe paraphanalia. Bottles of the actual, vile stuff (now legal in France and most of the EU) are available in the gift shop.

In Pontoise, the Musee du Pontoise and the Musee du Pissarro honor Camille Pissarro, who in my opinion, is vastly overlooked as an artist and the father of Impressionism.

It is just a short train ride from Pontoise to Giverny where are the magnificent home and gardens of Monet.  Meanwhile, towards Paris to Chatou, a tourist can visit the site of one of Renoir’s famous masterpieces, “The Rowers’ Lunch.”  The outlook across the Seine has changed, but the grounds and house, down to the striped awnings, remains the same.

A literary traveler can easily spend a week or two in this beautiful, undiscovered region and still not see it all. However, there is always the option to tear oneself away from the picturesque, vibrant scenery, and move onwards to Paris and visit the Musees D’Orsay and Marmottan to mull over the copies of these masterpieces.

Lesley Stern has enjoyed a successful career as an advertising copywriter.  After winning virtually every advertising award there is to win, including the Cannes Lion, she quit her Creative Director position at Lowe Worldwide to travel, starve and write about it. She spent the past six months living in Auvers sur Oise.  She is currently working on a book about the experience, as well as a screenplay and assorted other projects.

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