Vincent van Gogh’s death revisited

It is perhaps not by accident that in this month’s Burlington Magazine an article is published on a new theory about Vincent van Gogh’s death as the anniversary of Vincent’s death happens to be today. An article that refutes a highly controversial theory about the artist’s death and which propels us back to an old established myth.

About a year and a half ago, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White published a voluminous book about Vincent’s life which caused a sensation for claiming that the artist did not, as had always been believed, kill himself, but that he had been murdered by a 15-year-old local boy.

Detail of Vincent van Gogh's last letter to his brother Theo, 23 July 1890 (courtesy Van Gogh Museum)

Detail of Vincent van Gogh’s last letter to his brother Theo, 23 July 1890 (courtesy Van Gogh Museum)

In this month’s Burlington Magazine article, two staff members of the Van Gogh Museum, Louis van Tilborgh and Teio Meedendorp, show (among others) that contrary to Naifeh and White’s arguments, the physical evidence proves that the shot fired at Vincent did not come from such a distance as to make it impossible for him to have pulled the trigger. To support their factual findings with proof of Vincent’s state of mind, they point to his last paintings that show increasing anxiety, “extreme loneliness” and “existential fear”. A possible contributing factor could have been Vincent’s anxiety over his brother’s insecure financial future as Theo had plans to open an art gallery of his own rather than having a secure but in his mind insufficient income working for Boussod, Valadon & Cie. Vincent talks about “accepting a fate that won’t change any more” in his letters to Theo of that period. This, to the researchers, points to possibly more rational reasons for Vincent’s suicide than is generally thought.

Vincent_van_Gogh_-_Tree_Roots_and_Trunks_(F816)

Last year, but after the publication of Naifeh and White’s book, the same Louis van Tilborgh conclusively proved that the painting “Tree Roots” and not “Cornfield with crows” was Vincent’s very last painting. To the Dutch researchers this strangely abstract work harbours a “farewell” message, thus contradicting one of Naifeh and White’s arguments that Vincent did not leave a suicide note. There was one, only it was painted, not written. It made me think of something Vincent had written about another work, a drawing showing roots, in 1882: “I wanted to express something of life’s struggle (…) in those gnarled black roots with their knots.”

For me, it has always been Vincent’s drawing “A corridor in the Asylum”, made a year before his death, that, in its claustrophobic atmosphere, shows the depths of Vincent’s disturbed state of mind. But perhaps not so. Its haunting quality arises in part from the forlorn and empty impression the corridor makes, but in actual fact this has a practical reason: most of the rooms in the Saint Rémy asylum were empty while Vincent was there. He had sent the drawing to Theo to give his brother an impression of his surroundings. Nothing seems what it seems, it seems.

Corridor Met

Photo: Metropolitan Museum

Note:

An excellent annotated edition of Vincent van Gogh’s letters (Dutch and English) is available on the Van Gogh Museum’s website.

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4 thoughts on “Vincent van Gogh’s death revisited

  1. Very interesting- I believe he committed suicide. Who was the teen-ager? And what proof did the author give for his theory of murder? Not everyone leaves a note – not every note survives either. People who are named or blamed in notes often destroy them.

    • Susan, I agree with you re the suicide note.

      To go into Naifeh and White’s theory in detail would be rather impossible (and actually they propose two theories boiling down to the same thing: not Vincent but someone else pulled the trigger). Their first suggestion is that van Gogh was fatally wounded by a friend’s teenage brother who enjoyed teasing and provoking him. Ostensibly, during a confrontation in Auvers-sur-Oise, the boy somehow opened fire with a gun. The other theory is that Vincent was shot by two local boys who were playing with a malfunctioning pistol.

      In addition to the absence of a suicide note, Naifeh and White suggest that the bullet entered Vincent’s body “from an unusual, oblique angle – not straight on as one would expect in a suicide” (which the BM article now contradicts), that van Gogh “knew nothing about guns” and besides: “no gun was ever found” at the scene or anywhere else. They conclude that Van Gogh had a “history of violent outbursts” and suggest that a quarrel of some kind may have been his undoing. Moreover, there were rumours about Vincent having been murdered in Auvers-sur-Oise not long after Vincent’s death (as reported by art historian John Rewald who spoke with locals a few decades after Vincent’s death). Added to that is that on his deathbed, van Gogh only offered “hesitant, half-hearted, and oddly hedged” confessions of his suicide attempt, which Naifeh and White find unconvincing.

      • Very intriguing this ‘new’ theory, in these days it must have been so much easier to hide the real and more convenient truth. Not many people around than who did care.. I think a suicidal attempt could very well have happened as Vincent must have been so anxious about his future.. But how did he really die?

        • The two physicians who treated Vincent after the shooting incident were not capable enough to remove the bullet. The wound got infected and that is how Vincent died, 29 hours after the incident. Possibly the thought that Theo, who had supported him financially to buy pigments etc., was facing an insecure financial future may well have contributed to Vincent’s increasing anxiety and as we know, he was prone to depressions. He also worried about the wellbeing of Theo and his family. I think this a plausible contributing factor to possible suicide, as suggested in the Burlington Magazine article. According to Theo (who had rushed to Vincent’s side and was with him when he died), Vincent’s last words were: “The sadness will last forever.” It would have been a fitting epitaph for his tomb.

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