A recent segment on 60 minutes described the turbulent life of Vincent Van Gogh. It would make sense that the troubled artist killed himself, but there are certain things that just don’t add up. Two Pulitzer-Prize winning authors have completed a 976-page biography about Van Gogh (Van Gogh: The Life) that casts enough doubt on the original theory that the depressed artist killed himself. It is now thought that Van Gogh may have been accidentally murdered. Steven Naifeh and Gregory White were convinced that suicide, the way it had been presented and accepted in the past, didn’t make sense. With the help of a tremendous team of researchers and translators, the two came up with a more likely chain of events.
While it’s true that Van Gogh was what some might call crazy, it is quite possible that he suffered from partial seizures. This could have been why he was so afflicted in life. He seemed to crave what he could not consistently have: companionship. Though Van Gogh’s brother, Theodore, paid the painter Paul Gauguin to keep Vincent company, the relationship didn’t last and was filled with much turmoil. After a falling out between Gauguin and Van Gogh, Van Gogh began to act slightly more crazy, cutting off a large chunk of his ear. It’s possible the kind of seizures Van Gogh had got worse under stress, and losing what he felt was a friendship caused him to act out. It’s true that Vincent was unstable, but does this mean he committed suicide?
Despite the troubles that were obvious to those around him, especially his family, Van Gogh wrote in his journals that he considered suicide to be a sinful act. While he did address suicide and his contemplations of following through on such an extreme deed, all evidence points to a man who ultimately would make all efforts to refrain from such an act. In the end, he turned to painting to ease the pain of living in this world. He may have been afflicted, but he was able to find comfort in painting.
The plot thickens…
Many look to one of Van Gogh’s last paintings as a foreboding and ominous piece that could have possibly reflected his inner conflict and the suffering he was experiencing. However, Wheat Field with Crows was not the artist’s final piece. There were other less agitated paintings after that one was completed. Plus, one must consider that an intense painting does not necessarily reflect the desire to end one’s life. What is clear is that Van Gogh was, indeed, shot. What’s not clear is who did the shooting. The weapon was never found. Another strange piece of the puzzle is that the bullet was found in Van Gogh’s abdomen, which is generally not an ideal place to shoot when committing suicide. Though forensics wasn’t what it is now, there was evidence that the bullet entered at a strange angle.
It’s possible that Van Gogh did want to die. However, it’s unlikely that he pulled the trigger. Part of the problem is that Vincent didn’t always remember what happened after his crazed episodes. With the help of translators and researchers though, the mystery seems to be less cloudy. For instance, there was a shot heard by people who lived in Auvers, that probably wouldn’t have been heard had the gun been fired in a wheat field, as some have claimed. If Vincent had been painting in the field, it’s strange that his painting equipment was never found. The prime suspect in the crime is Rene Secretan, a teenager at the time who, with his brother, spent time with the artist. Rene was known for teasing Van Gogh, and the boy owned a pistol. In his older age, Rene claimed that he loaned the pistol to the artist, but, again, the weapon was never found. In the end, some of Vincent’s last words were unclear in meaning. For example, he told the doctor, “Do not accuse anyone; it is I who wanted to kill myself,” yet when he was asked if he attempted to commit suicide, his reply was that it appeared so, not an adamant yes. Did he want to protect the person who shot him, or was he unclear if he had shot himself? His illness did make him not remember everything clearly when he was in the middle of an attack. Steven Naifeh and Gregory White are convinced that Rene Secretan did accidentally shoot the artist.
While we may never know whether or not the brilliant artist died in an accidental shooting or in a suicide attempt, one thing that is both unfortunate and true is that he was never recognized as the amazing artist that he was during his lifetime.
On his death bed, Vincent’s last words to his brother were, “The sadness will last forever.” And yet through his paintings, he provides so much joy and peace to others.