Postcard helps researcher find exact place depicted in Van Gogh’s final masterpiece

After years of speculation, researchers have identified the probable location where Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) painted his final artwork. The announcement was made on Tuesday 28 July 2020, exactly 130 years after the post-impressionist artist took his own life due to mental health issues.  

Two days before van Gogh’s death on 29 July 1890, the artist left the Auberge Ravoux inn where he had been staying for several months, only to return that night with a fatal gunshot wound. The sequence of events that led to the shooting have been shrouded in mystery ever since. 

In 2012, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam confirmed that a French hillside painting titled ‘Tree Roots’ was the artist’s final piece, but its exact location and date were unknown until recently.  

Scientific Director of the Institut Van Gogh, Wouter van der Veen, discovered a clue in an unassuming postcard as to where the Dutch artist made his final brushstrokes. The card, dated from 1900 to 1910, shows a photograph of gnarled trees along the Rue Daubigny, a main road through Auvers-sur-Oise in France.  

With the help of a historical vegetation specialist and a comparative study of the painting and postcard, experts revealed it was “highly plausible” that this road was where van Gogh spent his final hours painting. “The similarities were very clear to me,” added van der Veen. 

He explained “we now know what he was doing during his last day. We know that he spent all day painting this painting.” The spot is only 150 metres away from where the artist was staying. Van Gogh’s depiction of dappled sunlight also suggests that the undated painting was completed towards the end of the afternoon.  

The overgrowth on the postcard shows very clear similarities to the shape of the roots on Van Gogh’s painting,” remarked Teio Meedendorp, a Senior Researcher at the Van Gogh Museum. “That this is his last artwork renders it all the more exceptional, and even dramatic. He must often have passed by the location when going to the fields stretching out behind the castle of Auvers, where he painted several times during the last week of his life and where he would take his own life.”  

Van Gogh often included trees in his expressive paintings, although they were not commercially successful at the time. Whilst living in The Hague in 1882, he described his fascination with tree roots in a letter to his brother Theo. He wrote that he wanted the trees in his work to “express something of life’s struggle…frantically and fervently rooting itself, as it were, in the earth, and yet being half torn up by the storm.” 

Reflecting on the significance of ‘Tree Roots’, van der Veen remarked “ending his life with this painting makes so much sense. The painting illustrates the struggle of life, and a struggle with death. That’s what he leaves behind. It is a farewell note in colours.” 

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