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In Auvers-sur-Oise, a bare room with scratched walls is all that remains of Vincent van Gogh’s final bedroom. Culture Trip met with Dominique Janssens, the man thoughtfully preserving this intimate insight into one of the world’s most famous artists.
The Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh spent the last 70 days of his life in the Auberge Ravoux, a 19th-century inn found in the quaint French village of Auvers-sur-Oise. The room where Van Gogh spent his dying hours could have easily become a Disneyfied tourist site, but instead, the small attic space has been preserved exactly as it was. While here, Van Gogh painted a number of masterpieces depicting scenes from the pretty commune.
Vincent van Gogh first arrived in the village of Auvers-sur-Oise, a haven of calm located just 30 kilometres from Paris, on May 20 1890.
Dr Gachet, his doctor and friend, had suggested he stay at the Saint-Aubin inn on Rue de Pontoise. However, at six francs per night, Van Gogh couldn’t afford it, and opted for Café de la Mairie (now known as the Auberge Ravoux) instead.
Van Gogh rented a room on the second floor and, while he stayed no more than a brief 70 days here, the time he spent in Auvers-sur-Oise had a major impact on the art world.
Some of the masterpieces Van Gogh painted during his stay in Auvers-sur-Oise include The Town Hall at Auvers, Village Street and Steps in Auvers with Two Figures, and Chestnut Trees in Blossom. The trees depicted in the latter still blossom every summer.
However, it’s the haunting depiction of The Church at Auvers, pitted against moody cobalt skies, that has become the most iconic illustration of Van Gogh’s time in this village.
Auvers-sur-Oise offers a chance to trace Van Gogh’s final footsteps and, as a result, attracts many art enthusiasts every year. The Auberge Ravoux became a classified historic monument in 1985, and has become the main tourist attraction in the village, largely because it is the only residence of Van Gogh’s to remain intact. It is also the room in which the misunderstood genius died.
The enormous interest that this tiny residence inspires could easily become overwhelming and the owner, Dominique Janssens, has developed an interesting strategy to ensure that visitor figures remain sustainable.
“Because of the size of the room [seven square metres, or 75 square feet], we can only welcome, in good conditions, 50,000 visitors a year. So we have to select our public,” Janssens tells Culture Trip.
“As we can only welcome 400 visitors a day, the Institut Van Gogh gives priority to Van Gogh lovers like artists, scholars and aficionados,” he says. “We tend to refuse big groups of tourists who consider Van Gogh as a ‘brand’.
“There are millions of Van Gogh aficionados in the world and, for those people, Auvers-sur-Oise is not a tourist place, but a pilgrim destination,” he explains.
However, the owner is concerned about being “over advertised”. During the last 18 years, the venue has been promoted in more than 22,000 articles worldwide and featured in over 850 TV documentaries.
Despite the widespread advertising, however, the Auberge Ravoux does not attract many visitors aside from real art lovers, because the sparsity of the space and the lack of props, recreations or original artworks only cater to people who are genuinely interested in Van Gogh’s legacy.
There is a haunting minimalism to the room. Aside from one chair, no furniture remains.
The idea is that the emptiness makes space for emotion. The abandoned room inspires a deeper connection with the artist by ensuring a heightened attention to detail.
“Most of our visitors come over to ‘furnish’ Van Gogh’s empty room at the Auberge Ravoux with their own memories,” Janssens says. The design is unashamedly authentic, dusty and bare, in order to inspire reflection. This period of contemplation is followed by a short poetic film that is screened in the next room.
Janssens continues: “André Malraux, a frequent visitor of the Maison de Van Gogh in the 1950s-60s, mentioned that ‘culture starts with emotion’. Every day, I enjoy sharing the emotion and happiness of people who come from all over the world to discover the smallest hotel in the world, with just one room: Van Gogh’s.”
Without the distraction of reconstructed scenes, all of a sudden, the scratches from where the artist battered nails into the walls to hang wet paintings become strikingly moving.
Janssens is keen to ensure that the future of the site will be rooted in authentic preservation. He refuses to compromise authenticity for profit and will keep the visitor figures firmly under check.
For Janssens, it’s not about how many people walk through these doors, it’s about the depth of connection that their visit inspires by the time they leave. There is, however, one project that’s been on the owner’s mind.
“Just before Van Gogh died in 1890 in his room at the Auberge Ravoux, he wrote to his brother Theo: ‘Someday or other, I believe I will find a way of having an exhibition of my own in a café,'” quotes Janssens.
“To fulfil this modest dream in the attic room where Van Gogh died and to transform it into a ‘room with a view’ is a real challenge for the Institut Van Gogh, which has been handling the cultural activities of the Auberge Ravoux, known as Maison de Van Gogh since 1926,” says Janssens.
The Institut Van Gogh hopes to raise enough money to welcome one of Van Gogh’s canvases back into the Auberge Ravoux. The artist never tasted success in his lifetime and dreamed only of being able to exhibit in a café. Janssens hopes to turn this dream into a reality someday.