The last van gogh, p.1
The Last Van Gogh, p.1Alyson Richman
PRAISE FOR THE WORKS OF ALYSON RICHMAN
“An engrossing examination of the prisons people create for themselves and the way they accustom themselves to suffering until liberation seems as painful as captivity. This is an ambitious exploration of political and personal struggles…”
“A heart-wrenching story of loss and love in the lives of people affected by war and political upheaval…[marked with] sharp resonance.”
“Places an Ayn Rand lens on societal ethics against personal loyalty and safety…deep, thought-provoking philosophical questions on the needs of an individual and a family against the demands of deadly leadership and a nation.”
—Midwest Book Review
The Mask Carver’s Son
“Recalls Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha… Her sense of Japanese culture is subtle and nuanced.”
—San Francisco Sunday Examiner & Chronicle
“This reverent, formal, and ambitious first novel boasts a glossy surface and convincing period detail…”
“First-time author Richman has successfully drawn upon her historical research and her own experience…Richman’s fluid writing is filled with historical detail and strong characterization.”
“A meticulous profile of a man struggling against his native culture, his family, and his own sense of responsibility.”
—The New York Times Book Review
The Last Van Gogh
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Copyright © 2006 by Alyson Richman.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The last Van Gogh / Alyson Richman.
1. Gogh, Vincent van, 1853–1890—Fiction. I. Title.
For Rosalyn Shaoul for her infinite wisdom
And to Zachary and Charlotte with love
The Last Van Gogh
ONE: A Folded Red Poppy
TWO: Two Altogether Different Shoes
THREE: A Delightful Young Woman
FIVE: Paul van Ryssel
SIX: Gachet’s Secret Water
SEVEN: Like Two Eagles
EIGHT: A Female Model
TEN: Queen of the Weeping Willows
ELEVEN: The Cellar
TWELVE: A Slip of Paper
THIRTEEN: Muddied Hem and All
FIFTEEN: Stealing into the Night
SIXTEEN: A Handful of Fireflies
SEVENTEEN: Like a Sister
EIGHTEEN: A Symbol of Modern Man
NINETEEN: The Isolated Ones
TWENTY-ONE: An Adventurous Spirit
TWENTY-THREE: The Yellow Finger print
TWENTY-FOUR: Plume of Gray
TWENTY-FIVE: Gifts and Warnings
TWENTY-SIX: Bridges in the Garden
TWENTY-NINE: Tinctures and Portraits
THIRTY: A Crane and a Plum Blossom
THIRTY-ONE: Lit from Within
THIRTY-TWO: The Final Touches
THIRTY-THREE: The Beautiful Canvas
THIRTY-FOUR: Shattered Marble
THIRTY-SIX: A Conflict of Passions
THIRTY-EIGHT: A Premonition
FORTY: A Certain Kind of Nobility
FORTY-ONE: Two Things Revealed
FORTY-TWO: A Fitful Night
FORTY-THREE: A Suitable Punishment
FORTY-FOUR: Three under the Lime Tree
FORTY-FIVE: A Second Letter
FORTY-SIX: Behind Closed Doors
FORTY-SEVEN: Bastille Day
FORTY-EIGHT: An Unframed Nude
FORTY-NINE: Saint Cecilia
FIFTY: An Approaching Frost
FIFTY-ONE: The Collection
A Folded Red Poppy
I WAS the first to see him, small and slight, with several canvases under his arm, a rucksack slung over one shoulder, and a straw hat pulled over his eyes. That was my first secret—from behind the blooming chestnut trees, I saw him first.
I had gone out to do my errands, as I always did in the early afternoon. It was a warm, radiant day in May. The sky was cornflower blue, the sun the color of crushed marigolds. I have to confess that I walked a little slower that day when I passed by the station. I knew approximately which train he would be arriving on. So I walked with smaller steps than usual, carrying my basket of eggs and my loaves of bread.
I heard the sound of the locomotive’s whistle and the screeching of its brakes as the train came to a halt. I walked over and stood behind the trees that bordered the platform.
I remember how he stepped down from the carriage; he was impossible to miss compared to the formal gentlemen in their black suits and top hats. He looked almost peasantlike in his white collarless shirt, broad straw hat, and unbuttoned vest. At first, the brim of his hat prevented me from making out his features. But finally, as he gathered his canvases and slung his satchel over his shoulder, I saw him clearly.
In a strange way he
To be sure, he was not classically beautiful. His complexion was pale. His cheekbones protruded; his red whiskers stood on end. Still, he intrigued me. He seemed so determined as he walked along with his head cocked high and his paintings loaded on his back. As he surveyed his new surroundings, I could see the eagerness and the energy in his eyes. And just by watching him, I could see what subjects he anticipated painting. He seemed to be assessing the rooflines of the village, the spire of our church, the clock tower of our town hall. Yet, as engrossed as Vincent seemed in his new surroundings, he seemed oblivious to the people passing him, hoisting their valises onto trolleys, struggling to make their way to their waiting carriages. He made no effort to move out of the way as he stood in the middle of the platform, his gaze now firmly planted on the river Oise.
He was like a sweep of yellow that afternoon in the rural landscape of Auvers. The sun gravitated toward him and in its warm, soft glow he appeared illuminated. I stood there and waited, watching as my father’s patient began to make his way into the village. I didn’t see him again until later in the day, when he arrived at our front door.
PAPA had spent much of the day preparing for Vincent’s arrival. He canceled his appointments in Paris and spent the early hours of the morning in the attic, looking over the paintings and prints he had not yet framed. He took his lunch upstairs and, around two o’clock, as I was heading out to do my errands, I saw him descending the stairs.
I tied my favorite kerchief under my chin and walked to the hallway to find my basket. Papa was now at his desk, unrolling one of his prints and flattening it with four paperweights.
“Papa, I’m going out,” I said.
He looked up at me, acknowledging my departure with an absentminded nod. I saw him turn to his bookshelf and withdraw a ceramic brush jar and a small Asian vase that Cézanne had given him a few years before. He held one in each hand, turning them around in the light and examining their patterns, seeing his own reflection in their glaze.
I knew that my father would place those two porcelains within arm’s length. It was part of his act when meeting people he wanted to impress, and I was certain he’d incorporate them into his first conversation with Monsieur Van Gogh.
IT had been a weary winter, and I was deriving enormous satisfaction from seeing my garden in bloom. I was one month shy of my twenty-first birthday and I had recently spent all my energy with my knees pressed to the ground and my fingers plunged into the soil. My labors, however, had not been in vain. For now the rosebushes were flourishing, the bulbs were sprouting into tall sturdy irises, and, just beyond our house, the fields were alight with red poppies, anemones, and white daisies.
Vincent’s arrival signaled not only a new addition to our village, but also a guest that Father felt was worthy enough to welcome into our home. We had few visitors, except for a handful of select painters. Camille Pissarro, Paul Cézanne, and Emile Bernard had all come to visit our home, but I never remember him inviting a single person from our village. The cobblers, the bakers—they were of no interest to Papa. But by opening our home to his various artist friends, Father was able to perpetuate the life he had enjoyed in Paris.
He often spoke of his time in the capital. After graduating from medical school, Papa joined his childhood friend Gautier—an aspiring painter—where they lived la vie bohéme among the burgeoning stars of the art world. And Father, who considered himself a dabbler at painting, was able to establish a thriving clientele of artists, writers, and musicians eager to exchange their work for his medical services.
Papa had written his dissertation on melancholia, taking the position that, historically, all great men—the great philosophers, poets, and artists of the world—suffered from that illness. Thus, he always had a sympathetic ear for those artists who considered themselves depressed or affected by a malady, and was quite eager to experiment with his medical obsession—the practice of Hahnemann’s homeopathy—in order to cure them. With the money Papa inherited from his father’s estate and the substantial income brought by Mother’s dowry, Father was free to pursue the unconventional methods of medicine that fascinated him most.
It had actually been Pissarro’s suggestion, to Theo van Gogh, that Vincent come to Auvers so that Papa could look after him. “With your background in painting and psychiatry, you’d be the perfect doctor for him!” Pissarro had told Papa one afternoon in our garden. I remember they were all in agreement that the fresh air and rural surroundings would both soothe his spirit and inspire Vincent’s painting.
But despite the bucolic surroundings of the village, ours was not the particularly light and airy home one might envision a country house to be. I remember wondering what this delicate painter would think of our narrow, cluttered living quarters. Would all the black furniture and bric-a-brac offend him in some way? And what would he think of Father and his homeopathic remedies? I wondered if he would come to our house frequently, the way the other artists had years before, and whether our home would come alive again.
He arrived at our door around teatime, bounding up the long narrow stairs with such energy that I heard his footsteps from inside my bedroom window. Father greeted Vincent and brought him into the family room. I had seen him take out one painting by Pissarro and three by Cézanne that afternoon and I knew he would be showing them to Vincent upon his arrival.
“Ah, yes, that is one of my favorites, too,” I heard Father agree with Vincent. I suspected Vincent was talking about the Pissarro, a lonely painting: a red house in the distance, a mother and child shivering in the foreground, and three chestnut trees covered in frost. “Most of my collection is upstairs,” Father continued. “And I have a print-making machine that I would be happy to lend to you. Cézanne used it often when he lived in Auvers.” Father paused and then switched to a more reverent tone. “You see, Cézanne gave me this small vase and ceramic brush jar as a token of his appreciation. I was of great assistance to him and his painting!”
I shook my head, overhearing all this. With each passing year, Father was becoming increasingly more inventive with his tales. His desire to be a painter himself seemed to overshadow his efforts as a doctor. The two men spent a few more minutes discussing various artists before I heard my name called.
“Marguerite!” Father summoned me. “Monsieur Van Gogh has arrived. Could you please bring us some tea?”
Madame Chevalier, the woman who had arrived in our home after Mother died and become the governess for my brother Paul and me, was reading in her bedroom. She spent most of her time now either sewing or fussing over Papa. I was the one who was responsible for the majority of the household chores.
I was wearing a new dress that afternoon. It was pale blue with small white flowers embroidered into the hem and neckline. I remember that at the last minute, just before I was about to descend the stairs, I turned back to fetch a white ribbon for my hair. It wasn’t something I normally did, as I usually wore my hair quite plainly around the house and kept it covered. But today I took the thin strip of ivory silk and tied it purposefully. I arranged one of the ends to rest against my collarbone, the other trailing against my shoulder. Against the backdrop of my father’s art collection and the shadows cast by our black furniture, I yearned to be seen.
By the time I brewed the tea and arranged the small yellow cakes I had made earlier, Father and Vincent had retreated to the garden. Vincent was seated next to Father, the large red picnic table stretched before them. The bending branches of our two lime trees framed
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