Van Gogh’s Church in Auvers-sur-Oise (1890)

This, The Church in Auvers, is one of 80 paintings that Van Gogh created in the last two months of his life. In his signature-style it is an expressionist take on a sacred building but what caught Vincent's attention. Why did he paint it?

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Captions for image(s) above:

Van Gogh, The Church in Auvers-sur-Oise, View of the Apse (June 1890)

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The building itself looks rather dull in comparison to Vincent's image of it. The latter is jelly-like with curved corners to the roof and bent lines where they should be straight. He also shortened the bell-tower, halving the height of the tall openings and giving their soft arches an acutely-angled peak, one of only two details he made sharper.

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Captions for image(s) above:

L: Van Gogh's Church in Auvers... (1890)
R: Recent photograph of the same church in Auvers

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Unnoted is that Van Gogh turned the windows of the apse and part of the grass into a veiled portrait of his own face. If you compare it to an earlier self-portrait at left, you can see how the top sections of the window-glass are like eye-lids. His "nose" is in the buttress and his beard and moustache are on the ground. The line of his upper lip is where the shadow on the grass meets the light.

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Captions for image(s) above:

L: Diagrammatic detail of Van Gogh's Church in Auvers... (1890)
R: Detail of Van Gogh's Self-portrait in a Felt Hat (1886)

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Now look without the help of the diagram and you should see his face suggested in the church and ground. Through the wall is the altar, thereby placing the ritual center of a sacred building directly in the center of the artist's mind which is therefore divine. The other detail he sharpened are the tiny stone frames above each pane of glass at left, turned from upside-down U-forms into a series of Vs for Vincent. Those Vs are in his "eyes".

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Captions for image(s) above:

L: Detail of Van Gogh's Church in Auvers... (1890)
R: Detail of Van Gogh's Self-portrait in a Felt Hat (1886)

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The bell-tower, mentioned above, was shortened for a reason. Vincent turned their openings and the green shutters into two sets of additional eyes with shaded areas as "pupils". The upper pair (center detail) seem to look upwards while the pair below (lower detail) shaded by shutters appear to look downwards. It is a variation on insight and out-sight, the two forms of artistic perception. Here, one pair looks heavenwards for insight while the other looks out towards nature and the ground. Above and in between them (upper detail) is a large clock, in fact just a circle, a traditional sign in Renaissance diagrams of the brain for the inner eye of imagination. As with the others, the arches above his symbolic eyes were sharpened to forms Vs for Vincent.

See conclusion below

Captions for image(s) above:

Three details of Van Gogh's Church in Auvers... (1890)

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What has been shown here is not isolated but a core part of Van Gogh's practice, observable in vast numbers of his images. It should help begin to balance the over-emphasis on his originality. He himself must have known that, to be true art, his paintings needed to express his individuality in original ways while passing on the wisdom of the ages through traditional methods common to the canon. 

Notes:

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 03 Nov 2013. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.