Thursday, May 29, 2008
Going to the Doctor's
Since I brought up Auvers-sur-Oise last week, and we are in the middle of the dates Vincent spent in Auvers (he arrived there on 20 May 1890 and died there on 29 July), I thought I'd dedicate a series of posts to this interesting town and some of the artwork Vincent produced while there. One of the reasons Vincent settled in Auvers, in addition to wanting to be near Theo and his family in Paris, was the presence of Dr. Paul Gachet, recommended to Theo by Camille Pissarro as someone who could possibly help Vincent with his illness. Gachet was a homeopathic doctor and art collector, acquainted with numerous artists such as Pissarro, Cézanne, and others.
Pictured here is the garden of Dr. Gachet's house. Gachet moved to Auvers in 1872 with his wife and three-year-old daughter Marguerite; his son (Paul Gachet fils) was born there in 1873. Gachet's wife died in Paris in 1875. Vincent was a frequent visitor to the Gachet home during his time in Auvers, where he painted portraits of the doctor and of Marguerite (but never Paul the son), as well as pictures of the doctor's garden. Also living in the house at the time was the housekeeper, Madame Louise-Anne-Virginie Chevalier (1847-1904) and her daughter; Vincent does not mention them in his letters, but Theo was said to have given a small painting to Madame Chevalier after Vincent's death. The Gachets were an eccentric family, to say the least, and many stories have sprung up about Vincent's time with them, some true, some not (some exaggerated stories were circulated by the Gachets themselves, especially Paul Gachet fils in later years). Vincent seems to have had mixed feelings about Dr. Gachet, thinking at first that the doctor truly could help him, but later expressing doubts in letters to Theo. Dr. Gachet seems to have done little for Vincent in the way of medical attention, and according to Vincent's letters, encouraged him to focus on his painting and not worry about his illness.
Paul Gachet fils died in 1962, and the house was sold at public auction. It was acquired by an American couple, the Vandenbrouckes, who fortunately treated the house with respect and believed in its historical importance. The French state declared it a historical monument in 1991, and in 1994 paid two million francs to acquire it for public display. After a lengthy restoration, the house was opened to the public a few years ago. Today you can see Gachet objects and artifacts that remained in the house after the 1962 auction, although much of the original furniture is gone (including Marguerite Gachet's piano, today in a musical instruments museum in Brussels). Gachet's printing press--he was an ardent engraver--is here, as are some of his medical knicknacks. The table from Vincent's portraits of the doctor stands under a glass case in the back garden. Gachet's art collection was sold off or donated by his children, with some of the van Goghs he owned (mostly acquired after Vincent's death) today in the Musée d'Orsay, others scattered in public and private collections around the world. Small exhibitions of local artwork by contemporary artists are sometimes held in the Gachet house today.
The house is definitely worth a visit, even though it's a bit of a walk from the van Gogh sites clustered on the east side of town. Both times I've visited, I've had the place to myself, and it's a pleasure to sit in the garden and reflect on Vincent's time there. Non-intrusive plexiglass "posters" of Vincent's paintings stand in relevant places around the house (pictured here is a garden scene with a female figure, likely Marguerite Gachet).
Any van Gogh book will discuss the Auvers period, but here are some especially good sources:
*Anne Distel and Susan Alyson Stein, eds., Cézanne to van Gogh: The Collection of Doctor Gachet (Metropolitan Museum, 1999): an exhibition catalogue (I saw that show, it was great) which details in the text the history of the Gachet family, house, and art collection
*Ronald Pickvance, Ed., Van Gogh in Saint-Rémy and Auvers (Metropolitan Museum, 1989): another exhibition catalogue, a terrific resource
*Cynthia Saltzman, Portrait of Dr. Gachet: The Story of a Van Gogh Masterpiece, Money, Politics, Collectors, Greed, and Loss (1998): a fascinating account of Vincent's Gachet portrait and its travails through time
*Marije Vellekoop and Roelie Zwikker, eds., Vincent Van Gogh Drawings, Volume 4: Arles, Saint-Rémy, and Auvers-sur-Oise (Van Gogh Museum, 2007): part of the multivolume catalogue of the VGM's holdings, a fantastic resource