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Memoirs of Vincent van Gogh's stay in Auvers-sur-Oise

By Adeline Ravoux


Vincent Van Gogh arrived at our place at the end May 1890; I cannot be more specific on the date from memory. It is claimed that before this he stayed briefly at the hotel Saint Aubin when he arrived in Auvers, but I never heard him speak of it. You have been able to see the small bedroom that he lived in with us, on the second floor, the room whose door faces the staircase. Having gone to Auvers on 7th. May last, I rectified errors that the current manager made on this subject, with respect to the bedroom on the first floor that he had never occupied. The room in the lobby where he painted (the "artists room" as we had called it) still exists, although reduced by a corridor. I have given an account of my trip to Auvers, which was published in Les Nouvelles Littéraires of 12 August 1954.

Of his dress, I remember only a blue drill jacket, shorter than an ordinary jacket, which he wore constantly. He did not wear either collar or tie. For headgear, he wore a felt hat with large flaps, and when the sun shone a straw hat like those worn by gardeners or fishermen. Overall his appearance was neglected.

He was a man of good build, one shoulder slightly leaning on the side of his wounded ear, a very penetrating glance, gentle and calm, but not a very communicative character. When one spoke to him, he always replied with an agreeable smile. He spoke French very correctly, hunting a bit for his words. He never drank alcohol. I insist on this point. The day of his suicide, he was not in the least intoxicated, as some claim. When I later learnt that he had been interned in an asylum for lunatics in the Midi, I was very surprised, as he always appeared calm and gentle in Auvers. He was well respected at our place. We called him familiarly "Monsieur Vincent". He never mixed with the clients of the café.

He took his meals with our two other boarders, who were Tommy Hirschig (who we called familiarly Tom) and Martinez de Valdivielse. Tommy Hirschig was a Dutch painter, to me he seemed twenty-three or twenty - four years old; he arrived at ours a bit after Van Gogh. He knew very little French and long continued to speak it badly, with vocabulary mistakes that provoked foolish laughter. He was a bright lad, not much of a worker, more preoccupied with beautiful girls than painting. His relationship with Vincent seemed to have been superficial. It was difficult to follow their conversation, because they spoke in Dutch. Vincent did not seem to take him very seriously. Hirschig left our house in Auvers a short while after the death of Van Gogh. I think, for my part, that it was our low rent (3,50 Francs per day) that attracted Van Gogh to us. In any case, it certainly was not Dr. Gachet who bought him. We had no relationship with this physician, who I had never seen at our place before the death of Vincent.

Martinez de Valdivielse was a Spanish watercolourist exiled from his homeland for his carlist opinions. He received large subsidies from his family. Martinez had a house in Auvers and only took his meals with us. He was a great handsome man with a long grizzled brown beard, with a profile as on a medal. Very vibrant and nervous, he strode the house from one end to the other. He expressed himself very well in French and was happy to speak to Father, whom he well respected. The first time that he saw a canvas of Van Gogh, with his usual fire he cried: " What pig made that? " Vincent, standing behind his easel replied with his ordinary calm: "It is me, Monsieur." This is how they met one another.

They hit it off quite well and had long moving conversations, especially on art and artists that they knew, one expressing himself with fire and enthusiasm, the other with calm. I do not think that Martinez really appreciated the painting of Van Gogh. Vincent does not in speak of him in his letters, at least in those that have been brought to public knowledge. In the Van Gogh correspondence, he does not name Dr. Gachet among his relationships. But I believe that the legend that suggests that Vincent went to dinner there every Sunday and Monday is probably false, or at least strongly exaggerated, because I have no memory of repeated absences of M. Vincent at mealtimes which he regularly took with us. In fact, I am persuaded that there were no intimate relationships between the doctor and the artist. That is a problem on which scholars will have to work.

The menu was that served during the period in restaurants: meat, vegetables, salad, dessert. I do not remember M. Vincent having any food preference. He never refused a dish. He was not a difficult boarder. The question of religion was never raised in our house. We never saw Vincent Van Gogh either in church or at the priests'. I never knew any Protestants in Auvers. Vincent did not visit anybody in the village, to the best of my knowledge. He had few conversations with us. Father, who had been established in Auvers only a few months before the arrival of Vincent, was then forty - two years old. He did not hold a conversation on art and did not discuss with him any material questions.

On the other hand, Vincent had attached himself to my little sister Germaine (today Mrs. Guilloux, who lives with me). She was then a baby; two years old. Every evening, following the meal, he took her on his knees, and drew The Sandman for her on a slate: a horse harnessed to a cart, in which the sandman stood upright, throwing sand by the handful. Following this the little girl kissed everyone and went to bed.

Vincent had not spoken to me before he did my portrait, other than for some polite words. One day, he asked me: "Would it please you if I did your portrait? "He appeared to really want to. I accepted and he asked my parents' permission. I was then thirteen years, but to some I appeared sixteen. He did my portrait in an afternoon, in one sitting. During the sitting Vincent did not say a word to me; he smoked his pipe non-stop.

He found me very well behaved and complimented me for not having moved. I was not tired, but it amused me to see him paint and I was very proud to pose for my portrait. Dressed in blue, I was sitting on a chair. A blue ribbon held my hair. I have blue eyes. He used blue for the background of the portrait: it was therefore a Symphony in blue. M. Vincent also made a copy in a square format that he sent to his brother, as he indicates in one of his letters. I did not see him do this copy. There is also a third portrait of me. I don't know this last.

What I wish to emphasize is that I only posed for one portrait. I confess that I was only poorly satisfied with my portrait, that I was even disappointed: I did not see a resemblance. Nevertheless, last year, someone who came to see me to talk about Van Gogh: the first time that they met me they recognized me from this portrait that Vincent had done and added: "This is not the youthful girl that you were that Vincent saw, but the woman that you would become". Neither of my parents really appreciated this painting, nor did anyone else that saw it then. At this time very few people understood the paintings of Van Gogh. We kept this picture until 1905, I believe, as well as that representing the Town Hall of Auvers that Vincent had offered to Father. Again I saw Vincent paint this last canvas, on our sidewalk in front of the cafe: it was 14th. July; the town hall was decked out and there was a garland of lanterns around the trees.

After fifteen years, the paint on these canvases started flaking. We were then in Meulan. Across from our café was the Hotel Pinchon, where some artists were lodging; there were two Americans, Harry Harronson who also lived in Paris, rue du Marché au Beurre, no. 2, I believe, and, in Meulan, the other was nicknamed "Le petit père Sam" [little father Sam]; there was also a German and a Dutchman who claimed to be of the Van Gogh family. They knew that Father possessed two works by Van Gogh.

They asked to see them, and then later insisted that Father give them these canvases, because, they said "The paint is damaged and it is necessary to give them special care." Faced by the threat of seeing these paintings deteriorating, Father told them: "Huh! Well, give me ten Francs each." Thus it is that these paintings of Vincent Van Gogh were given up for forty Francs: The Woman in blue and The Town Hall of Auvers on 14 July.

Van Gogh filled his days in an almost uniform way: He took his breakfast, then at nine he left for the countryside with his easel and his artist's box, always with his pipe in his mouth: he was going to paint. He returned punctually at noon for lunch. In the afternoon, he often worked on a painting in progress, in "the painters room". Sometimes he worked there until dinner, sometimes he went out for four hours until the evening meal. After dinner he played with my little sister, drawing her the Sandman, then he immediately went up to his bedroom. I never saw him write in the cafe: I think that he wrote in the evening in his bedroom.

Here is what I know on his death.

That Sunday he went out immediately after lunch, which was unusual. At dusk he had not returned, which surprised us very much, for he was extremely correct in his relationship with us, he always kept regular meal hours. We were then all sitting out on the cafe terrace, for on Sunday the hustle was more tiring than on weekdays. When we saw Vincent arrive night had fallen, it must have been about nine o'clock. Vincent walked bent, holding his stomach, again exaggerating his habit of holding one shoulder higher than the other. Mother asked him: " M. Vincent, we were anxious, we are happy to see you to return; have you had a problem?"

He replied in a suffering voice: "No, but I have…" he did not finish, crossed the hall, took the staircase and climbed to his bedroom. I was witness to this scene. Vincent made on us such a strange impression that Father got up and went to the staircase to see if he could hear anything.

He thought he could hear groans, went up quickly and found Vincent on his bed, laid down in a crooked position, knees up to the chin, moaning loudly: " What's the matter, "said Father," are you ill? Vincent then lifted his shirt and showed him a small wound in the region of the heart. Father cried: "Malheureaux, [unhappy man] what have you done?"

"I have tried to kill myself," replied Van Gogh.

These words are precise, our father retold them many times to my sister and I, because for our family the tragic death of Vincent Van Gogh has remained one of the most prominent events of our life. In his old age, Father became blind and gladly aired his memories, and the suicide of Vincent was the one that he told the most often and with great precision.

In parenthesis here, I want to clear up any doubt about the fidelity of Father's memory, which was prodigious. He sometimes told clients of our cafe his memories of the war of 1870. This was bought to the knowledge of a chronicler of the Petit Parisien, a specialist in historical questions - he was called M. Saint -Yves, I believe - and the former verified Father's accounts; all the details that he gave were confirmed: he was never caught out with an error from his lips.

The value of Father's testimony being thus well established, I continue the account of his memories on the death of the great painter. I must confess that the manner in which some biographers have spoken to me of Father has shocked me. Father was not a vulgar man. His reputation of honesty was proverbial: he was not called "Father Ravoux" for nothing. He commanded respect.

I continue therefore the account of the confidences that Vincent Van Gogh made to Father in the course of the night of Sunday to Monday that he spent with him.

Vincent had gone to the wheat field where he had painted previously, it was situated behind the Auvers chateau, and then belonged to Mr. Gosselin who resided in Paris, rue de Messine. The chateau was more than a half - kilometer from our house. It was reached by going up a steep hill, shaded by great trees. We do not know how far he got from the chateau. In the course of the afternoon, on the road that passes under the chateau wall - so my father understood - Vincent shot himself with a revolver and fainted. The freshness of the evening revived him. On all fours he sought the revolver to finish himself off, but could not find it (and it was not found the following day). Then Vincent gave up looking and came down the hill to regain our house.

I never, obviously, assisted at the agony of Van Gogh, but I was witness to most of what happened, which I am going to relate now.

After seeing his injury in the region of the heart, Father descended rapidly from the bedroom where Vincent groaned and he asked Tom Hirschig to go in search of a physician. In Auvers there was a physician from Pontoise who had a pied-a-terre where he gave consultations. This physician was absent. Father sent then Tom to Dr.Gachet who resided in the upper part of the town, but did not practice in Auvers.

What was Dr.Gachet's connection with Van Gogh? Father ignored him completely, the physician had never come to the house, and the scene in which my father assisted did not to make him suppose any existed, in fact on the contrary.

After the physician's visit, Father told us: "Dr. Gachet has examined Mr. Vincent and has dressed his wound with bandages that he had himself brought "(someone had warned him that it concerned a casualty). He judged the case hopeless and left immediately. I am absolutely certain that he did not return: neither that evening, nor the following day. Father told us again: "During the examination and when he was bandaging the wound, Dr. Gachet did not say a word to M. Vincent."

After escorting the physician home, Father went up to M. Vincent and he stayed all night. Tom Hirschig remained near him.

Before the arrival of the physician, Vincent had requested his pipe and Father had lit it. He resumed smoking after the departure of the doctor, and smoked thus a part of the night. He appeared to suffer a lot and often moaned. He asked Father to put his ear to his chest to see if he could hear the gurgling of the internal hemorrhage. He remained silent almost all the night, sometimes dozing.

In the morning of the following day, two gendarmes of the Méry brigade, alerted by a public rumor probably, appeared at the house. One of them, called Rigaumon, questioned Father in an unpleasant tone: "It is here that there has been a suicide?" Father, after begging him to soften his manners, invited him to climb up to the bedridden. He preceded the gendarme into the bedroom, explaining to Vincent that in this case that the gendarmes were here as French law prescribed an inquiry. The gendarme then entered the room, and Rigaumon, always in the same tone, questioned Vincent: "Are you the one who wanted to commit suicide?"

- Yes, I believe, replies Vincent in his usual soft tone.

- You know that you do not have the right?

Always in the same even tone Van Gogh replied: "Gendarme, my body is mine and I am free to do what I want with it. Do not accuse anybody, it is I that wished to commit suicide."

Father then asked the gendarme, a bit sharply, not to insist any more.

Since dawn, Father had been preoccupied with how to tell Theo, the brother of Vincent. The casualty then being lethargic could not give precise information. (He had had a burst of energy during the gendarme's visit that had tired him a lot..) But, knowing that Vincent's brother was a salesman at the Art Gallery of Boussod Valadon, boulevard Montmartre, in Paris, Father sent a telegram to this address when the post office opened. Theo arrived by train in the middle of the afternoon. I remember seeing him arrive, running. The station was close enough to us. He was a man a little smaller than Vincent, thin, an agreeable physiognomy and he appeared very nice. But his face was marked by sorrow. He immediately climbed up to his brother who he kissed and spoke to him in their native language. Father withdrew and did not help them. He did not go back in during the night. After the emotion that he had felt on seeing his brother, Vincent had fallen into a coma. Theo and my father kept watch on the casualty until his death, which occurred at one o'clock in the morning.

It was Father who, with Theo, in the morning made the declaration of the death to the town hall.

The house was in mourning as if for the death of one of our own. The door of the cafe remained opened but the shutters were closed in front. In the afternoon, after the bier was set out, the body was bought down to " the painters room".

Tom had gone to pick greenery to decorate the room, and Theo had had placed all around canvases that Vincent had left there: The church of Auvers, Irises, The Garden of Daubigny, The child with an orange, etc. At the foot of the coffin his palette and brushes were laid out. Our neighbor, Mr. Levert, the carpenter, had lent the trestles. The child of this latter, two years old, had been painted by Van Gogh in the painting The child with an orange.

It was also Mr. Levert who made the coffin.

Les Nouvelles littéraires has published a photograph of our house in Auvers where one can see Father, my sister Germaine, the Levert child and myself.

The interment took place two days later after the death, in the afternoon. About twenty artists followed the body to the village cemetery. Father was there as well as Tom and Martinez and neighbors who, each day, saw M. Vincent when he went to paint.

On the return, Theo, Tom, Dr.Gachet and the latter's son, Paul, who may have then been sixteen, accompanied Father. They entered "the painters room " where the coffin left from and where the canvases were on display. Theo, wanting to thank those that had helped his brother, offered them to take, in memory, some canvases of the departed artist. Father was content with my portrait and the Town Hall of Auvers that M. Vincent had given him when he was alive. When the proposal was made to Dr.Gachet, the former chose many canvases and passed them to his son Paul: "Roulez Coco", telling him to make a parcel. Then Theo took my sister Germaine to choose a toy: this was a basket of intertwined shavings containing a small iron kitchen utensil. Finally, Theo took his brother's belongings. We never saw him again.

Later, we learnt that he had fallen gravely ill almost immediately after the suicide of his brother and that he was dead some months after. His body was returned to Auvers where it is interred next to his brother. What were the motives for the suicide of Vincent?

Here is what Father thought: Theo had a little boy and Vincent adored his nephew. He feared that his married brother, having further expenses, could no longer finance him as he had up to then. This is the motive that Theo expressed to Father and he told him that the last letter written by Vincent was in this sense. It has been published as No. 652 in the series of Letters of Vincent to Theo; has it been published in its entirety? The motive of the suicide is not discernable in the letter.

On this confidence on Vincent's embarrassment of money, made by Theo to Father, one finds no trace in the letters, which tends to make me think that there are gaps in the publication of these letters. Does the correspondence of Vincent Van Gogh pose problems that someone wanted to avoid?

His setbacks in love or the little success of his painting, of his life, we knew nothing and we would have certainly ignored his financial difficulties if Theo had spoken to Father when they took care of Vincent, because the former paid his rent regularly.

I have finished my account. I would like it to be published fully and without anyone modifying the text. I have lately been interviewed by journalists who have reported my words with more or less fidelity, or have mixed my declarations with their personal ideas, sometimes disagreeable, even going as far as to distort what I had told them, or have used my memoirs for purposes that, if I had known, would have made me decline the interview.

I am without doubt the last surviving person who personally knew Vincent Van Gogh in Auvers, and certainly the last living witness of his final days.

It appears to me therefore that my testimony, of which all literary preoccupation is excluded, has an essential value for the history of the life of Vincent Van Gogh in Auvers, and should not to be confused with fantasies that, over the years, have been spread, one does not know who by, neither to what goal. I add that my testimony can not be exploited in such a manner when writing the history of the life of Vincent, in Auvers, it is given under the condition to fully respect the content. It is possible that these true eyewitness memories go against certain now accepted legends.

But these - (and later authors who referred to their words) – who have written the history of the life of Vincent Van Gogh have to admit that it is only in 1953, on the occasion of the centenary of the birth of the great artist, of whom the press is preoccupied, have they discovered she who was named The Lady in blue. Thus, for sixty - three years, no retelling by a witness of his life of her memories of the life of Vincent at Auvers-sur-Oise had been researched. They have therefore built, on disputable foundations, a legend of the life of Van Gogh in Auvers-sur-Oise.

In conscience, I have told what I have seen, then told what I have heard from my father who, alone near Vincent, spent the tragic night of 27 July 1890. I would like to remain persuaded that my account is a document that is useful to preserve, and which will serve as a reference when someone wants to write the truthful history of the stay of Vincent Van Gogh in Auvers-sur-Oise.


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