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Originally published September 21, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 21, 2007 at 2:05 AM

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Legendary landscapes of Monet, van Gogh

Driving into the town of Auvers-sur-Oise, past its tidy stone and timber houses, I began looking for scenes that Vincent van Gogh had painted...

Minneapolis Star-Tribune

AUVERS-SUR-OISE, France — Driving into the town of Auvers-sur-Oise, past its tidy stone and timber houses, I began looking for scenes that Vincent van Gogh had painted.

Parking in front of the church that presides over the town, I recognized it as one of van Gogh's subjects even without the filter of his brushstrokes. Every angle of the sturdy stone building, with gothic arched windows, builds toward its stout bell tower, pointing skyward.

If I hadn't recognized it, the connection would be hard to miss. A plastic-laminate copy of his painting "The Church at Auvers" was posted on a sign in front, a helpful guide to the thousands of tourists who come to the town each year looking for van Gogh's legacy.

Van Gogh is my favorite painter, and I went to Auvers in the hope of connecting in some way with the source of the vividness, vitality and soulfulness that he expressed in his canvases.

I had spent the better part of a week in Paris, much of that time looking at paintings, and now I had a couple of days to see where some of that art was created. In addition to Auvers, I wanted to see Giverny, the famous home of Claude Monet, standard-bearer of the Impressionists. To me, the two places, and the two men, are a fascinating study in contrasts.

Lives of the artists

Van Gogh and Monet were contemporaries who shared a love for painting flowers and landscapes, but otherwise they couldn't have been more different.

Van Gogh, a Dutchman, was poor, emotionally unstable and unappreciated as an artist during his lifetime. Alone and penniless in 1890, he committed suicide in a rented room above a bar in Auvers at age 37. Monet, a Frenchman, was as savvy in business as he was skilled as an artist. He was much celebrated and fairly wealthy during his long life. He spent his last four decades at Giverny, surrounded by friends and relatives in a huge farmhouse with an elaborate garden. He died in 1926 at age 86.

Van Gogh painted wildly and quickly, expressing depths of emotion that remain startlingly powerful. Monet, more restrained, labored over every stroke, sometimes taking months or years to complete a work to his satisfaction.

Because Monet's most famous paintings were done in his own garden, more than a half million people from all over the world come to see it each year. Even on a weekday spring morning, the parking lot rumbled with idling tour buses.

The garden begins at the front door of Monet's two-story pink stucco farmhouse. A densely planted geometry of flower beds and arbor-covered pathways fills the gentle slope of the 2 1/2-acre front part of the garden.

The property is divided in half by a road and railroad line; along with an American friend from Paris I walked under a nifty underpass that connects the formal flower beds with the more famous water gardens, where Monet painted his epic water-lily series.

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The air smelled of fresh dirt and new growth. The morning light bathed every surface with a luminescence that seemed familiar from Monet's paintings. Everything in the garden seemed familiar from Monet's paintings. The gentle arch of the Japanese bridge, the pale green leaves of the weeping willow, the clouds reflected in the water — I'd seen them all on posters and coffee mugs.

That didn't diminish the wonder. Monet considered the garden one of his greatest works of art, and he poured his heart (as well as a lot of money and six full-time gardeners) into creating it. Winding trails encircle the central pond, fed by a meandering stream. Inspired by Japanese prints, the garden manages to look natural while being elaborately planned to frame well-composed views from any vantage.

The artist spent the last years of his life focusing exclusively and steadfastly on the lily pond — a surface of reflection interrupted by floating leaves and ethereal blooms. Monet painted these same forms over and over, in endless variations of color and shading. "For me a landscape does not exist in its own right," Monet wrote. " ... but the surrounding atmosphere brings it to life — the light and the air which vary continually."

Monet didn't have to go anyplace special to find wonders to express with his paintbrush. Poet William Blake found the world in a grain of sand; Monet found the universe in his front yard.

Van Gogh's village life

Van Gogh was never as settled as Monet. But like Monet, he never let the humbleness of his subjects keep him from seeking revelation in the details.

In the village of Auvers-sur-Oise, the most important van Gogh landmark is the Auberge Ravoux, which was the Cafe de la Mairie when van Gogh moved there. The building now looks much as it did then: a simple two-story storefront with a peaked roof. Van Gogh lived in a tiny room in the attic. The place now houses a cafe and a small museum of van Gogh's last days.

We joined a tour in progress, and slowly climbed the narrow wooden stairs toward the artist's room. Van Gogh moved to Auvers in May 1890, at his brother Theo's request. He'd left an asylum in the south of France, where he'd been confined after threatening his friend Paul Gauguin with a knife and then cutting off part of his own ear.

Theo, a Paris art dealer, had been supporting Vincent for years; only one of his paintings had ever sold. Theo arranged for Vincent to live in Auvers, where he could keep an eye on him.

Regardless of his mental state, van Gogh was at the peak of his powers in Auvers, said the tour guide. He painted one canvas per day, creating 70 masterpieces of the landscape, the houses and the people.

Finally the guide led us to van Gogh's room. "He rented the very worst room in the house," she said. "It's never been rented since he left; it's the same paint on the walls, literally."

A small skylight brought silvery light into the tiny room. One simple wooden chair with a caned seat rests in the middle of the room. The low ceiling, angled by the roofline, made the space seem even smaller.

Auvers is only an hour from the heart of Paris, but it is still a country town. It takes only a few minutes to walk from van Gogh's room to the church, and a few more to get to the graveyard where he and his brother Theo are buried. Beyond the graves, there are open farm fields.

We walked on the lane by the fields. We came to a sign indicating that van Gogh had painted a scene on the spot — here it was, "Wheat Field With Crows." In the painting on the sign, the scene erupts with color. A road's green ruts divide an endless sea of yellow and gold wheat waving in the wind. The crows flap into the cobalt blue sky, their black wings negotiating the space between heaven and earth. The image, one of van Gogh's final paintings, is beautiful and devastatingly sad at the same time. Just looking at it, I felt a gripping in my chest.

In one of hundreds of letters that Vincent wrote to Theo, he said: "What am I in most people's eyes? A nonentity, or an eccentric and disagreeable man. ... I should want my work to show what is in the heart of such an eccentric, of such a nobody. This is my ambition, which despite everything is founded less on anger than on love. ... It is true that I am often in the greatest misery, but still there is a calm pure harmony and music inside me."

The gift of the artist is to give life to what many feel, but few can express. Here, van Gogh succeeded beyond his wildest expectations. With paint and a practiced eye, he endowed a humble farm field with the grace of divinity and the weight of mortality. I could see it.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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