After Van Gogh left the asylum at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence on May 16 1890, he also left the south of France and travelled north. He visited his brother Theo in Paris and then moved to Auvers-sur-Oise to be treated by Dr Paul Gachet. It was here that Van Gogh spent what turned out to be the last ten weeks of his life, and in this short time, he produced over 100 works, including The Church at Auvers. The Church at Auvers — along with other canvases such as The Town Hall at Auvers and several paintings of small houses with thatched roofs — are reminiscent of scenes from the northern landscapes of his childhood and youth. A certain nostalgia for the north had already been apparent in his last weeks at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence: in a letter, he wrote a couple of weeks before his departure, Vincent wrote “While I was ill I nevertheless did some little canvases from memory which you will see later, memories of the North”
He specifically refers to similar work done back at Nuenen when he describes this painting in a letter to his sister Wilhelmina: “I have a larger picture of the village church — an effect in which the building appears to be violet-hued against a sky of simple deep blue colour, pure cobalt; the stained-glass windows appear as ultramarine blotches, the roof is violet and partly orange. In the foreground are some green plants in bloom, and sand with the pink flow of sunshine in it. And once again it is nearly the same thing as the studies I did in Nuenen of the old tower and the cemetery, only it is probably that now the colour is more expressive, more sumptuous”.
The foreground of The Church at Auvers is brightly lit by the sun, but the church itself sits in its own shadow, and “neither reflects nor emanates any light of its own.” After Van Gogh had been dismissed from the evangelical career he had hoped to continue in the Borinage, he wrote to his brother Theo from Cuesmes in July 1880, and quoted Shakespeare’s image from Henry IV, Part 1 of the dark emptiness inside a church to symbolize “empty and unenlightened preaching”: “Their God is like the God of Shakespeare’s drunken Falstaff, ‘the inside of a church'”
Current Location: Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France