Page last updated at 10:32 GMT, Saturday, 24 October 2009 11:32 UK

In the footsteps of Vincent van Gogh

A letter from Vincent van Gogh to to his younger brother Theo in mid-September 1881
Many of the letters are to Van Gogh's younger brother Theo

With a new edition of the letters of Vincent van Gogh getting the art world very excited, Vincent Dowd visits a small town in France, where the artist painted some of his most famous works.

There are just a handful of opportunities left this year to take the Van Gogh Express from the Gare du Nord out beyond the northern suburbs of Paris to Auvers-sur-Oise.

The train is not actually called the Van Gogh Express but that is what it is.

Because from spring to the end of October - on Saturdays, Sundays and National Holidays - the 0956 non-stop service takes the day-trippers, art-lovers and shameless Van Gogh groupies to Auvers to see two things: the little auberge, or inn, where in July 1890 Vincent lay dying after he shot himself, and the cemetery where he has lain ever since.

Fitting monument

Vincent spent the last 70 days of his life in the little town. It was already an artist's colony - quiet, but not too far from Paris.

It had a homeopathic doctor, Paul Gachet, who befriended Vincent and other painters such as Cezanne and Renoir.

In 1990, one of Vincent's portraits of Dr Gachet fetched over $80m (£48m) at auction in New York.

How it would have astounded the artist, who at the auberge was pretty much painting a picture a day.

Van Gogh's room at the Auberge Ravoux
Van Gogh's room at the Ravoux Inn is kept virtually empty

How Dominique Janssens came to own the Auberge Ravoux would make a drama in itself.

Suffice to say that in 1985, as a young Belgian-born biscuit executive with a lifetime of retail opportunity ahead, he was sitting in a stationary car just outside the inn, when another vehicle hit him at very high speed.

Much later Mr Janssens, aware he was lucky to be alive, spotted a mention in the police accident report of Auvers' Van Gogh connection.

He decided to buy the building Vincent had died in and fashion from it a fitting monument to one of the world's great painters.

Now some 70,000 people a year traipse up the creaky stairs to see the small and irregularly shaped attic room where Vincent lived and died.

"We could have at least twice that," Dominique Janssens told me, "but it's a place of pilgrimage as well as tourism".

A large number of Japanese in particular want their ashes scattered over Vincent's grave - for much of the year the thick ivy covering it carries a light coating of grey

He visited houses of the famous all over Europe to pick up tips on how the Van Gogh House might operate.

Finally he found somewhere which evoked for him a sense of the previous occupant - the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.

One simple thing there struck him, and as a result Vincent's room is kept virtually empty. That way people have to supply their own thoughts and images.

Big in Japan

Church of Auvers-sur-Oise
A trip to Auvers prompts questions about the painter's last days

Of the 70,000 visitors a year, a large number are Japanese. Van Gogh has long been popular in Japan - perhaps because for a time he was interested in Japanese art.

But there is a practical reason too. Auvers is convenient for Charles de Gaulle Airport and long-haul tourists often turn up jet-lagged direct from their flight rather than struggle into Paris in the rush hour.

And quite a large number of Japanese in particular want their ashes scattered over Vincent's grave. For much of the year, the thick ivy covering it carries a light coating of grey.

Vincent's body was placed in a coffin made by the carpenter who had been supplying his picture frames.

Some of the works painted in Auvers were arrayed around him and some were given away.

He was put in a common grave with a 15-year lease. Later there was money to move the body to a better spot, which is where he lies now, his brother Theo beside him.

Wheatfield with Crows

The cemetery is a 10 or 15 minute walk outside Auvers - past the church and up a track into open fields. There is a chirp of pewits and crows caw.

Many claim the dramatic Wheatfield with Crows was Van Gogh's last work

Like many I had looked at the well-known Wheatfield with Crows - one of Vincent's final works - and seen death in the birds' black and swirling presence.

Or did he simply paint what he saw on a blustery afternoon in the fields above the town?

Leaving Auvers I meet Dominique Janssens again. He tells me I have been lucky to get the cemetery to myself for a few minutes.

And he says that his 20 years in Auvers have persuaded him that those who hit the Van Gogh trail are seeking the truth, not about his life, but about their own.

In a secular age, has Vincent's suffering now attained a quasi-religious status for some visitors?

A trip to the town prompts other questions too. Did Vincent really mean to kill himself?

Was the Auvers countryside a balm to his soul or did it deepen his isolation? Did those crows really presage death?

But Vincent van Gogh was a great painter - none greater, some think. Maybe all we really need to know about him is there already in oils and canvas.

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