Saturday, November 17, 2007

A Lonely Attic Room

The room where Van Gogh died still exists. Arrive at the Auberge Ravoux on the main square of the little town of Auvers-sur-Oise outside Paris, climb the wooden stairs to the top floor, and enter the small room where Vincent drew his last breath. A single skylight lets in the sun, the double-doored squat closet where he would have put his things waits ready, and if you look closely, you can see holes in the plaster where somebody hung things on the wall. Vincent was the last person to sleep in this room; because he was a suicide, the inn closed it to tenants after his death. On my two visits to Auvers (in 2006 and 2007), I was fortunate to be at the Auberge at a quiet time, and so had the room--and its memories--to myself.

A Belgian named Dominique-Charles Janssens acquired the Auberge Ravoux in the early 1990s after a long struggle with creditors, the French government, etc. and lovingly restored the inn to its former glory. The restaurant downstairs has marvelous food, but it's the room upstairs that counts. The room next to Vincent's (in Vincent's day occupied by Dutch painter Anton Hirschig) is restored to show what these rooms looked like when furnished, but Mr. Janssens deliberately left Vincent's room empty "so visitors can furnish it with their thoughts."

But Mr. Janssens has a dream: to bring an original Van Gogh painting back to the room. He's been quietly raising money for years, but the November 7th (non-)auction of "Fields" at Sotheby's New York boosted his resolve. He's made an international call for help from artlovers everywhere and has created a website: The time was too short to raise enough money to bid on the "Fields" at auction, but a statement released after the auction (see "Press" on his site) reveals that he hopes to take advantage of the non-auction to raise more money for "Fields"--or another painting.

At first I was a little dubious, I must admit. I love the quiet of Auvers. I love that it's not touristy, and I'd hate to see it turn into a Van Gogh carnival. But then I thought about how much Mr. Janssens has done thus far--not just for the Auberge Ravoux, but other sites in Auvers such as Dr. Gachet's house--and what commitment he has to maintaining van Gogh's memory. And I let my romantic sensibilities run free, and I think about how the lonely attic room wouldn't seem so lonely with bright, beautiful colors to fill it. I share Mr. Janssen's dream, and I hope others will too.

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