As Vincent van Gogh lay dying in a dingy room at a French inn, the painting above his cast-iron bed was The Fields, a scene of the undulating wheat plains where the artist had contemplated life and death.
Today, Dominique-Charles Janssens, who runs the inn and has transformed it into a destination for Van Gogh lovers, wants to bring the painting home - if he can raise the money for it.
It's a far-fetched dream: The Van Gogh painting is estimated to sell for between US$28 million and US$35 million at a Sotheby's auction in New York next Wednesday.
Janssens, undeterred by the high price tag, has sent out a worldwide appeal for help buying the canvas. He won't say how much, or how little, he has already collected, but said he has been encouraged by donations big and small - from a US$14,000 contribution from the French subsidiary of American Express to a US$5 check from an 80-year-old American woman.
"I think people will pay with their heart," said Janssens, who launched his appeal on Oct. 10 via the Web site www.vangoghsdream.org.
The opportunity to buy a Van Gogh painting is rare, and his works are among the world's most expensive, said David Norman, chairman of impressionism and modern art at Sotheby's. The record for a Van Gogh painting was set in 1990 when the Portrait du Dr. Gachet sold for US$82.5 million at Christie's in New York.
The Fields, painted about two weeks before the artist's death on July 29, 1890, is one of several versions Van Gogh did of the farmland surrounding Auvers-sur-Oise, about 30km northwest of Paris.
In May 1890, Van Gogh arrived in the country village, which looks today much as it did then. Stone houses with red tiled roofs are nestled behind front gardens where orange trees grow. An elderly woman rides a bicycle down the main street; a man pushes a wheelbarrow filled with gourds.
In the 70 days Van Gogh spent in the village, he captured the country church, the stone houses and his friend, the art patron Paul-Ferdinand Gachet.
Some of his best works were painted in the bucolic surroundings. Van Gogh conveyed the cycle of life through the contrast between a ripened wheat field and the crows that picked at the grain. He painted the town's fields at least three times around July 10, 1890.
But weeks later, suffering from a fit of despair, Van Gogh wandered into the same fields and shot himself. After stumbling back to his attic room at the Auberge Ravoux Inn, he lay in his bed surrounded by paintings, smoking his pipe and talking with his brother, Theo, until he died two days later.
Sotheby's says it believes that The Fields hung above his bed and that it was intended as a gift for his brother, his lifelong confidant and steadfast supporter.
Correspondence between the artist and his brother provided the inspiration for the Institut Van Gogh's effort to exhibit an original painting in the inn. About a month before he died, Van Gogh wrote: "One day or another, I believe I will find a way to have an exhibit of my own in a cafe." Without a home of his own, Van Gogh spent much of his life in cafes, chatting with artist friends and painting the people he met there. Van Gogh believed that art came from the people and that it should belong to the people. By bidding for the painting to put in the inn, Janssens believes he is fulfilling the artist's dream.