By Alex Roediger

From left: Vincent van Gogh. Terrace of a Café at Night (Place du Forum). c. September 1888. Oil on canvas, 80.7 x 65.3 cm. Kröller-Müller Museum; Café Nuit, Arles. Photo by Alex Roediger

From left: Vincent van Gogh. Terrace of a Café at Night (Place du Forum). c. September 1888. Oil on canvas, 80.7 x 65.3 cm. Kröller-Müller Museum; Café Nuit, Arles. Photo by Alex Roediger

July 29, 2015, is the 125th anniversary of Vincent van Gogh’s death. This past spring I fulfilled one of my lifelong dreams by taking a trip to Europe to follow in Van Gogh’s footsteps. As a teenager I checked out every library book about Van Gogh, and eventually read the unabridged three-volume set of letters he wrote to his brother, Theo. With so much time having passed, I was eager to see if anything from Van Gogh’s time had survived. Could I stand where he did and still make out the fields he painted, or would I be standing in the center of an unrecognizable suburb or, worse, inside a shopping mall?

My girlfriend and I first traveled to the Netherlands, where Van Gogh was born and lived for most of his life. In Amsterdam we went to the Van Gogh Museum and viewed hundreds of his works, including many of his greatest paintings. We were touched to learn that the collection and museum were created by his sister-in-law, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, and nephew, Vincent Willem van Gogh. We then headed to Arles, in the south of France, where Van Gogh developed the rich color palette and strong brushwork that made him famous.

It seemed little had changed in Arles since Van Gogh’s time, aside from the absent yellow house he had lived in, which was destroyed during a bombing raid in WWII. In the center of town we found the café he depicted in Café Terrace at Night. It is now painted bright yellow with green streaks to mimic Van Gogh’s painting style. In spite of the cheesy tourist vibe, it was fun to stand in the exact spot where Van Gogh had done his painting.

From left: Vincent van Gogh. Garden of the Hospital in Arles. 1889. 28.7 in × 36.2″ (73.0 cm × 92.0 cm). The Oskar Reinhart Collection “Am Römerholz,” Winterthur, Switzerland; The garden at the former hospital as it appears today. Photo by Alex Roediger

Nearby we visited the local hospital where Van Gogh recovered after having cut off part of his ear during an emotional breakdown. The garden today looks nearly the same as it did 125 years ago.

From left: Vincent van Gogh. The Olive Trees. Saint Rémy, June-July 1889. Oil on canvas. 28 5/8 x 36

From left: Vincent van Gogh. The Starry Night. Saint Rémy, June 1889. Oil on canvas, 29 x 36 1/4″ (73.7 x 92.1 cm). Acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest; The view from Saint-Paul’s asylum that inspired The Starry Night. Photo by Alex Roediger

Although The Starry Night was based on the view of the surrounding hills from his barred asylum window, much of the composition was imaginary, including the view of the town and, most likely, the cypress tree. It was moving to grab the bars and think, this is the sight that inspired him to paint The Starry Night, a picture that to me feels so hopeful and spiritual—in great contrast to the prison-like setting he was confined to.

From left: Vincent van Gogh. Landscape from Saint-Rémy. Saint-Rémy: June, 1889. Oil on canvas, 70.5 x 88.5 cm. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen; View from the asylum yard, where Wheatfield Under Thunderclouds was painted. Photo by Alex Roediger

From left: Vincent van Gogh. Landscape from Saint-Rémy. Saint-Rémy: June, 1889. Oil on canvas, 70.5 x 88.5 cm. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen; View from the asylum yard, where Wheatfield Under Thunderclouds was painted. Photo by Alex Roediger

Auberge Ravoux Inn, where Van Gogh lived for the last few months of his life. Photo by Alex Roediger

Auberge Ravoux Inn, where Van Gogh lived for the last few months of his life. Photo by Alex Roediger

For our last destination, we took a train to Auvers-sur-Oise, just north of Paris, where Van Gogh lived for the last 70 days of his life, painting approximately one painting a day. We took a tour of the inn, including the room where he lived and died. Although his room is rather unremarkable, it’s well preserved due to the fact that no one has rented the space since his death. Currently the owners are determined to get an original Van Gogh painting to hang in his room.

Like Arles and Saint-Rémy, Auvers has maintained its small-town ambience and beautiful buildings, and continues to keep the subjects of Van Gogh’s paintings looking just as they did when he painted them.

From left: Vincent van Gogh. The Town Hall at Auvers . July 1890. Oil on canvas, 21 × 41

From left: Vincent van Gogh. Stairway at Auvers. July 1890. Oil on canvas, 19 11/16 x 27 3/4″ (50 x 70.5 cm). Saint Louis Art Museum. Purchase; The stairs today. Photo by Alex Roediger

Walking toward the cemetery to visit his grave, we headed up the hill and past the beautiful 800-year-old church he painted (in The Church at Auvers, 1890). Moments later, we found ourselves immersed in the fields where Van Gogh is believed to have shot himself before returning to the inn, where he eventually died.

From left: Vincent van Gogh.  The Church in Auvers-sur-Oise, View from the Chevet. June 1890. Oil on canvas, 94 x 74 cm. © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski; Notre-Dame d' Auvers today. Photo by Alex Roediger

From left: Vincent van Gogh. The Church in Auvers-sur-Oise, View from the Chevet. June 1890. Oil on canvas, 94 x 74 cm. © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski; Notre-Dame d’ Auvers today. Photo by Alex Roediger

Fields near the church. Photo by Alex Roediger

Fields near the church. Photo by Alex Roediger

We entered his cemetery and, nearly in tears, stood at the foot of Van Gogh’s grave, where his brother Theo stood in grief on the day they buried him. Even more tragic was that Theo died just six months after Vincent, at the age of 33, and is buried right next to his brother under the same bed of ivy.
The graves of Vincent and Theo van Gogh. Photo by Alex Roediger

The graves of Vincent and Theo van Gogh. Photo by Alex Roediger

Immediately outside the cemetery, we walked down a muddy path and I realized that not only was I walking inside the painting Wheatfields with Crows, but I could also see the church he painted in the distance, the view of his landscape of Auvers in the rain, the field that he likely shot himself in, and the cemetery that he shares with his brother. At that moment I had never felt closer to Vincent.

From left: Vincent van Gogh.  Wheatfield with Crows. Auvers-sur-Oise, July 1890. Oil on canvas, 50.5 x 103 cm. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation); The field where Van Gogh painted Wheatfield with Crows. Photo by Alex Roediger

From left: Vincent van Gogh. Wheatfield with Crows. Auvers-sur-Oise, July 1890. Oil on canvas, 50.5 x 103 cm. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation); The field where Van Gogh painted Wheatfield with Crows. Photo by Alex Roediger

From left: Vincent van Gogh. Rain–Auvers. 1890. Oil on canvas, 50.3 x 100.2 cm. Amgueddfa Cymru–National Museum of Wales, Cardiff Gwendoline Davies Bequest, 1952; The view today. Photo by Alex Roediger

From left: Vincent van Gogh. Rain–Auvers. 1890. Oil on canvas, 50.3 x 100.2 cm. Amgueddfa Cymru–National Museum of Wales, Cardiff Gwendoline Davies Bequest, 1952; The view today. Photo by Alex Roediger

Read more here:: A Van Gogh Pilgrimage on the 125th Anniversary of His Death