Tuesday, July 29, 2008

May he rest in peace...

Vincent van Gogh died about 1 am on Tuesday 29 July 1890. The funeral was held the following day in Auvers-sur-Oise, at the cemetery on the plateau overlooking the town. The funeral was attended by Vincent's brother Theo, Dr. Gachet and his son, the owner of the Auberge Ravoux and other friends Vincent had made during his brief time in Auvers, and several artist friends who came from Paris.

One of those artist friends was Emile Bernard, who wrote a moving letter to art critic Albert Aurier describing the occasion. Vincent's body was laid out in a ground-floor room at the Auberge Ravoux for his friends to pay their respects. Bernard says:

On the walls of the room where his body was laid out all his last canvases were hung making a sort of halo for him and the brilliance of the genius that radiated from them made this death even more painful for us artists who were there. The coffin was covered with a simple white cloth and surrounded with masses of flowers, the sunflowers that he loved so much, yellow dahlias, yellow flowers everywhere. It was, you will remember, his favourite colour, the symbol of the light that he dreamed of as being in people's hearts as well as in works of art.Near him also on the floor in front of his coffin were his easel, his folding stool and his brushes.

Theo speaks of arranging Vincent's paintings around the coffin and of his friends bringing yellow flowers in his own letters to his family in the Netherlands. Bernard goes on to describe the brief funeral in the Auvers cemetery:

The sun was terribly hot outside. We climbed the hill outside Auvers talking about him, about the daring impulse he had given to art, of the great projects he was always thinking about, and of the good he had done to all of us. We reached the cemetery, a small new cemetery strewn with new tombstones. It is on the little hill above the fields that were ripe for harvest under the wide blue sky that he would still have loved…perhaps. Then he was lowered into the grave… Anyone would have started crying at that moment…the day was too much made for him for one not to imagine that he was still alive and enjoying it…

Bernard explains that Dr. Gachet gave the eulogy. Theo was so overcome with grief he could say very little to the gathering.

The Van Gogh Museum has in its archives a collection of letters and notes of consolation sent to Theo after Vincent's death. These were translated into English and published in 1992 as a volume (together with the family's letters to each other about Vincent's passing) and are incredibly moving reading. Last summer when I visited the VGM, a small display of a few of the notes was included in a focus-exhibition on Van Gogh's friendships. Paul Gauguin's brief but touching note was among them. Theo had this to say in a letter to his mother of 1 August 1890:

It is a grief that will weigh on me for a long time and will certainly not leave my thoughts as long as I live, but if one should want to say anything about it, it is that he himself has found the rest he so much longed for. If he could have seen how people behaved toward me when he had left us and the sympathy of so many for himself, he would at this moment not have wanted to die. ...
Oh, Mother, he was so very much my own brother.

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