In the 125 years since Vincent Van Gogh’s death, his paintings have inspired countless art lovers to scramble for a map.
Scenes conjured by Van Gogh’s paintbrush – the billowing skies of Starry Night, his swooning Sunflowers, Provence’s cypress groves – make many of us wish we could step right into his paintings.
American artist Mac Cauley created a virtual reality experience allowing users to do just that. But more enjoyable than strapping on a headset is seeking out the locales that glow so irresistibly in Van Gogh’s work. The locations of his most famous paintings form an arc from Belgium and the Netherlands through to Provence in the south of France. Some are wonderfully unchanged, others have been eroded by time and tourism. But they all offer glimpses into the artist’s mind – plus an excellent excuse to explore some of western Europe’s loveliest regions.
Rural intrigue in Nuenen, Netherlands
Wandering Nuenen today, with only the whirr of bicycle spokes disturbing the streets, is calming. Some might say soporific. But it was in this peaceable Dutch town, amid churning watermills and tree-lined lanes, that Van Gogh completed his first major work.
Having spent his early life travelling between the Netherlands, England and France, he paused in Nuenen, 7km east of Eindhoven, to spend a couple of years avidly sketching farm workers. His breakthrough was The Potato Eaters (1885), a complex, earthy depiction of a family settling in for a meal.
It’s a smouldering image, one that brims with life. Following the painting’s origins to sleepy Nuenen might have you blinking in surprise. But the contrast was precisely Van Gogh’s aim: he wanted to reveal the lesser-seen aspects of peasant life, with all its earnest, robust pleasures.
Experience it: Nuenen’s major sight for fans of the artist is Van Gogh Village (vangoghvillagenuenen.nl), rich in stories about his early life and archives of his letters. It has an ‘outdoor museum’ that leads a trail through sights in Nuenen that he sketched. Nuenen is thin on sights from Van Gogh’s major works but a stroll from the south end of Parkstraat up to the north end of Berg bypasses the artist’s former lodgings; slightly north of here is Gerwenseweg, thought to be where he painted The Potato Eaters.
Self-abuse in Antwerp, Belgium
Shortly afterwards, Van Gogh painted his iconic Skull with a Burning Cigarette (1885-6). Details are hazy, but it's thought this famously macabre image came from Van Gogh’s time as a frustrated student of Antwerp's Academy of Art.
Some see this work as a swipe at artistic dogma. For others, it alludes to Van Gogh's (partly self-inflicted) 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, the anise-flavoured spirit known for its green colour and mild psychoactive properties. All the while he worked voraciously, sketching the city sights.
Experience it: Today’s Antwerp has a slick modernity thoroughly alien to the creaking port city Van Gogh knew. To marvel at the contrast, stroll from gabled 16th-century Vleeshuis down to steel-lined Theaterplein. But some sights remain the same: from the Het Steen fortress on the banks of the Schelde, walk east to Grote Markt – Van Gogh faithfully sketched both of these well-preserved sights.
Capturing the romance of Provence, France
In Provence, the air is thick with the fragrance of lavender. Cicadas as big as a thumb whirr across wheat fields that blush gold with the setting sun. Here in southern France, mostly around Arles and Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, the artist painted with the most vibrant colours of his career.
Van Gogh lavished his canvases with Provence’s cypress and olive groves. In city scenes like Café Terrace at Night (1888), he hinted at the excitement and mischief of Arles’ nightlife. The same month, Van Gogh painted Starry Night over the Rhone (1888), whose light-dappled view remains the same today, mere paces from where Van Gogh lodged on Arles’ Place Lamartine.
But this was also the period when Van Gogh’s mental health would dramatically relapse. Following an absinthe binge and an argument with his artist friend Gauguin, he mutilated his own ear. Despite his distress, and voluntary commitment to the Saint Paul-de-Mausole asylum in nearby Saint-Rémy, his works from this period are suffused with Provence’s natural beauty – especially in the celestial swirl of his famous Starry Night (1889).
Experience it: Base yourself in Arles, best known for its well-preserved Roman arena and the Camargue wetlands to its south. A few paces west of the arena (which Van Gogh painted), down Rue des Arènes, is Le Cafe la Nuit. This is the spot featured in Van Gogh's Café Terrace at Night; sadly it's a tourist trap today. From Arles, the half-hour drive to Saint-Rémy takes you past cypress groves galore; in Saint-Rémy village you’ll find Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum, facing the wheat field he painted in 1889-90.
Final days in Auvers-sur-Oise, France
Van Gogh's last days were intense and solitary. The artist followed his doctor Paul Gachet, a firm friend and muse, to Auvers-sur-Oise (27km northwest of Paris). Here, he painted the Church at Auvers (1890); its sweeping lines create a wild, almost ominous version of the tidy edifice that still stands here today.
Though new research leads some to believe Van Gogh was murdered, he is generally understood to have died by suicide. It has become commonplace to cite Van Gogh's Wheatfield with Crows (1890), in which birds soar haphazardly over a darkening meadow, as a final outpouring of melancholy. In reality there is scant evidence that this painting was Van Gogh's last. His final creative outpourings vary wonderfully in tone, from pensive portraits of his doctor and torrid thunderclouds to lush Daubigny’s garden.
Experience it: Visiting Auvers, you can admire remarkably unchanged sights from Van Gogh's paintings. North of the train station lies the Church at Auvers. Walking west along Rue de Général de Gaulle you can see the town hall he painted. The street parallel, Rue Gachet, is where Van Gogh's doctor resided. Facing the town hall is the Ravoux Inn, where Van Gogh breathed his last. This once-humble tavern is a Michelin-starred restaurant today (maisondevangogh.fr). And yes, you will find absinthe on the drinks menu.
Van Gogh 2015: 125th anniversary events around Europe
A clutch of special events commemorate 125 years since the death of Van Gogh; check vangogheurope.eu for the full programme. Highlights include:
- An illuminated cycle path inspired by Starry Night in Nuenen (until December 2015).
- Van Gogh-inspired menus and art-food fusion in Ede (until December 2015).
- Delving into Van Gogh's final days in Auvers-sur-Oise (until 20 September 2015).
- The unveiling of 20 new works by contemporary artists, all inspired by Van Gogh, in Amsterdam (until January 2016).