When I was a college freshman, I played hooky from chemistry labs and anthropology lectures for one day, and instead waited in a long, long line on an uncharacteristically chilly morning in Los Angeles. This wait was my first-ever experience with what is generally known as a “blockbuster exhibition”-- the kind of show that draws record-setting crowds to spend record-setting dollars in order to cram together to view artistic masterpieces for a very limited time. In my case, the exhibition was “Van Gogh's Van Goghs,” featuring numerous works from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The allure of seeing so many paintings by one of the most popular artists of all time was simply too strong-- at that point in my life, I had never seen one Vincent van Gogh work in person, let alone many, and I just had to go, classwork be damned. Of course, many other people had a similar idea, and together we swarmed, hive-minded, past paintings filled with shimmering colors and exuberant brushstrokes. I immersed myself in bright sunflowers, swirling self-portraits, and lovingly painted landscapes. But when I turned into the final gallery, something stopped me firmly in my tracks.
I stood in front of a horizontal painting, divided nearly in half by tones of cobalt and ochre, with the darkness of the blue tones, representing a gloomy sky, almost a shock in contrast to so many of the more vibrant paintings I had admired in the previous galleries. The artist’s hasty brushstrokes reveal a dash of greenery, turbulent swathes of wheat, and a red-brown dirt path disappearing towards the horizon. Above, in the churning sky, is a flock of blackbirds. This was Wheatfield with Crows, a showpiece created just prior to Van Gogh’s untimely death in late July of 1890. For over a hundred years, viewers have been struck by this painting as I have been, and interpretations of it have been many and varied. But the one that seems to stick--whether or not it is accurate, which, surprise, it isn't-- is that it visually presents Van Gogh’s growing depression and hopelessness. And as such, many read it as a preview of his upcoming death--a suicide note completed in paint instead of ink.
Van Gogh’s suicide is as much a part of his story as the famous tale of the cut-off ear is. He’s been called the perfect embodiment of the tortured genius, a creature so agonized by life and failure that he sought his own death as the only solution. But in 2011, two Pulitzer Prize-winning authors published a book titled Van Gogh: The Life that stunned the art world. In their book, authors Gregory White Smith and Stephen Naifeh state that the artist didn’t actually commit suicide. No-- they say, he was actually murdered.
Sometimes people think that visual art is dry, boring, lifeless. They might remember childhood field trips to museums stuffed with cranky old women, deathly silent galleries, and dusty golden frames hanging on the wall. But sometimes, the stories behind those paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs are weirder, crazier, or more fun than you can imagine. Art History is full of murder, intrigue, feisty women, rebellious men, crime, insanity, and so much more. And today, we are going to discuss one of the world’s most beloved artists and attempt to uncover the mysteries surrounding his death. Exploring the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in Art History, this is the ArtCurious Podcast. I'm Jennifer Dasal.
It’s nearly impossible for us to separate Vincent van Gogh from the the idea of Vincent van Gogh. From Irving Stone’s 1934 blockbuster novel Lust for Life, to the 1956 movie of the same name starring Kirk Douglas, even to “American Pie” songwriter Don McLean’s schmaltzy single, “Vincent,”- you might know it as the song that opens with the line “starry, starry night…”-- Van Gogh is embedded into our popular culture. And because of this, we think we know him. But the truth of the matter is that much of what we’ve been taught about this agonized virtuoso is the most sincere exercise in myth-making. Like so many others gone before their time-- think John Lennon, Kurt Cobain, David Foster Wallace, and so on-- an artist’s unexpected death becomes the perfect catalyst for the elevation of a cultural icon to the status of saint, hero, or god. And by and large, this apotheosis leaves us with a romanticized view of someone’s life and work. We love stories-- and even if the juiciest parts of a story aren’t true, we don’t care. It’s so much more pleasurable for us to collectively think of Van Gogh, sigh wistfully, and say, “What a poor man. And to think he never sold one work during his lifetime.” Even if we are wrong--and we are-- we want to believe the myth-- and thus, we carry it on.
It turns out that the myth of Van Gogh as a distressed genius began incredibly soon after his death. Art historian Nathalie Heinich notes that less than two years after his passing, the term “genius” was already being assigned to Van Gogh by art critics. Drawn to the facts of his mostly solitary existence and, of course, his suicide, it became very easy for experts and the general public alike to begin appointing various adjectives to describe him: disturbed, forsaken, tragic, mad, and, tortured. And once these descriptions began to take hold in the public imagination, there was really no stopping it. As early as the 1930s, some historians began to lash back against the mythologizing of Van Gogh. In a 1936 article in the American Magazine of Art, Gertrude Benson wrote that the majority of information circulating about Van Gogh was QUOTE:
“a kind of unscrupulous muckraking that sensationalizes the frustration, the tragedy, and not the achievements, in a life that was obstinately dogged by misfortune.... At best, the emphasis was on the ‘poor fighter, the poor, poor sufferer’; at worst, literary hacksters spun a Poe-like tale of horror from the melodrama in his life or shed crocodile tears over a Christ-like hero who moved stumblingly but inevitably toward his crucifixion.”
Now, those are fightin’ words from Benson for sure, and it is helpful to note that Irving Stone’s sentimental embellishment of Van Gogh’s life had been published only two years prior--and he’s undoubtedly the “literary hackster” to whom Benson refers-- so Benson is probably reacting directly to Stone’s book here. But, regardless of the circumstances, she was right. If there ever was an artist whose story was subjected to such hyperbole, it’s Vincent Van Gogh. But how much of the information about his life is true? How much of it is romanticized fiction?
Vincent Willem van Gogh was born in the village of Zundert in the Netherlands on March 30, 1853. His youth was fairly uneventful, and family noted that while he drew pictures from time to time, there was never a real indication of any solid artistic talent or tendency. And indeed, his decision to become a professional artist came rather late in his life at the age of 27, after first pursuing careers as a teacher, a clergyman, and an art dealer. Art became a constant in his life around the age of sixteen, though, when his uncle found him a job as a clerk at an international art dealership called Goupil and Company. He trained first in the Hague before transferring to the firm’s London office. He didn’t love the work, and eventually he was fired from the job. But the clerkship did do something rather important: it kept him immersed in the art world and would ultimately feed his curiosity, leading him to collect prints, art reproductions, and books in order to study them and teach himself how to draw. Until roughly 1880, Vincent ping-ponged around England, Holland, France, and Belgium in pursuit of various career endeavors. It seems, like many of us, that he just didn’t know what to do with his life. Ultimately, this conundrum was solved by his younger brother, Theo, who often acted as his confidante, financial backer, supporter, and all-around metaphorical guardian angel. Vincent and Theo were lifelong penpals, and in his letters, Vincent would sneak in little sketches or drawings of places he visited or people he had seen. In 1880, Theo wrote Vincent and advised him to pursue art as a full-time career. Luckily for us, Vincent heeded that advice, and spent the next few years ping-ponging around Europe again in search of artistic inspiration and training.
Most art historians consider Van Gogh’s first real achievement in painting to be his 1885 canvas called The Potato Eaters, which is a clear representation of Vincent’s interest in being what he called “a painter of peasant life.” He found everyday people-- especially the working class-- to be an inspiration, an embodiment of the kind of Christly ideals that he proselytized during his early attempts at being a preacher. These initial peasant scenes are dark, shadowy, and full of earth tones. For those who only know the Van Gogh through his Irises, the Cafe Terrace at Night, or a little painting called Starry Night, these works are shockingly dark. The ones many of us think of as being quintessential Van Gogh paintings didn’t come into being until after 1886, when he moved to Paris to live with Theo and to dig deeply into the Parisian avant-garde of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. Suddenly, Vincent was thrust into the worlds of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Gauguin, Paul Signac, and Claude Monet. These artists--some of whom became good friends with Van Gogh--dramatically impacted him. Under their influence, his works became bolder, brighter, more expressive, more spontaneous. His brushstrokes became shorter, livelier, and more prominent. Van Gogh, as we know him, really began to come into his own. But it wasn’t until he made the momentous decision to move to Southern France that his work really sprang into full bloom.
In early 1888, Van Gogh found himself exhausted and burnt out by Parisian life. He was tired by the stress and pressure of both urban vitality and the manic art scene, and was thrilled by the idea of a simpler life--and probably of warmer weather, too. He relocated first to the small Provencal town of Arles where he settled into a life of extreme productivity-- according to estimates, he created over two hundred paintings in the short span of only fifteen months. Like so many artists of the time, he was exhilarated by the light and the colors of the natural world around him, and the steadily good weather in Arles allowed him to spend full days painting outdoors, or en plein air, to practice his craft. And what he really wanted was to practice this craft with others who shared his obsession with art, color, and expression. He dreamed of forming an artists’ colony in a big Yellow House in Arles, and invited his artist friends from Paris and beyond to join him in this endeavor. Famously, though, only one--Paul Gauguin--answered the call. And for a few months, the artists worked together and shared their theories on artistic development until the two men began to disagree and ceased collaborating. It was also around this time that the first signs of Van Gogh’s mental instability began to surface. Late that year, Vincent experienced his first breakdown--possibly related to epilepsy, though the precise nature of his condition is still unknown-- and his physical and mental ailments, combined with his despair at the failure of his artists’ colony and his fracture with Gauguin, led to its apex with the legendary ear-mutilation incident. Soon after, in May of 1889, Van Gogh had himself voluntarily committed to a mental asylum in the small town of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. He wrote, QUOTE, “I put my heart and my soul into my work, and have lost my mind in the process.” Once he was sufficiently healed physically, he sought emotional restoration the only way he knew how-- through a continual devotion to art. Nature still held its attraction, and once he felt able, he painted the hospital’s garden, olive trees, bouquets of flowers, mountains, and towering cypresses with as much vigor as he always had-- and it was during this period that some of his most memorable works, like Starry Night, were created. He stayed at the asylum in Saint-Remy for a year, experiencing several more fits and breakdowns, with some lasting for weeks at a time-- one of his doctors even noted that he attempted to poison himself by ingesting paint and kerosene. Vincent became convinced that the asylum was actually causing him to mentally disintegrate even faster, and so, in May of 1890, Vincent left Saint-Remy-de-Provence with the blessings of his doctors to return to Paris and to the comfortable support of his brother, Theo.
If there’s one thing that we can see about Vincent Van Gogh, it’s that he really didn’t stay anywhere for a very long period of time. He itched for change, and most often sought it in a change of location. Only days later, he left Paris and moved to the town of Auvers-sur-Oise, about 30 kilometers north of Paris-- close enough to Theo, but far enough from the city that he could still seek the authentically simple life for which he yearned. He carried on-- producing multiple landscapes, including Wheatfield with Crows, but the countryside didn’t have as much healing power as he had originally hoped. His depression continued, and his illness worsened. And so, on July 27, 1890, Van Gogh walked into the middle of one of those fields he had so lovingly rendered, and with a revolver, he shot himself in the stomach. He died two days later, on July 29th. He was 37 years old.
Vincent Van Gogh’s life was turbulent, and his early demise is most certainly heartbreaking. But much of the collective image of Van Gogh as a misunderstood and unloved genius is still highly mythologized. Take, for example, the often-repeated nugget that Van Gogh’s art was completely unappreciated during his lifetime and that he never sold one work of art. Untrue. In a wonderful series called “125 Questions,” the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam answered this one by posting a reply on their website, saying QUOTE, “We don’t know exactly how many paintings Van Gogh sold during this lifetime, but in any case, it was more than a couple. Vincent sold his first painting to the Parisian paint and art dealer Julien Tanguy, and his brother Theo successfully sold another work to a gallery in London. The Red Vineyard, which Vincent painted in 1888, was bought by Anna Boch, the sister of Vincent’s friend Eugène Boch. Van Gogh often traded work with other artists – in his younger years, often in exchange for some food or drawing and painting supplies. In this sense, Vincent actually ‘sold’ quite a lot of work during his lifetime.”
within the artistic community, his art was exhibited, seen, and appreciated. In fact, during the time period that he committed himself to the Asylum in Saint-Remy, his work was exhibited multiple times in both Brussels and Paris. He was shown alongside contemporaries like Camille Pissarro, Paul Cezanne, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. He could even count the great Claude Monet as one of his admirers during his lifetime. In terms of public interest in his work, yes, things were probably a bit slower on the pickup than the artist himself would have liked. But let’s think about Vincent’s biographical timeline here-- he made the choice to pursue art as a full-time endeavor only in the last decade of his life, half of which was spent learning, working, and perfecting his techniques. Of course he didn’t have a lot of time to get out there and market himself and his artwork. And it isn’t rare for many artists to go years--even decades or lifetimes--before finding recognition or admiration. And finally, let’s consider the art market in general at the end of the 19th century. Van Gogh’s art fit squarely into the world of the avant-garde, which meant that many people probably considered his works too strange or radical--too unrealistic-- for their tastes. Van Gogh was certainly not alone in this-- so many of the impressionists and post-impressionists had the same problems. Think of Claude Monet once again-- today, his works are reproduced so ubiquitously that your mom probably has an umbrella with his waterlilies emblazoned across it. We see his works as almost over-saturated in their popularity. But Monet didn’t begin selling works until he was in his mid-forties, and most of his early impressionist works, which we think of as masterpieces today, were initially scorned by critics, viewers, and other artists alike as being ugly and technically crude. We’ll be returning to discuss the revolutionary impressionists in a later episode of ArtCurious, by the way. So while it may be unfortunate that Vincent Van Gogh didn’t sell more during his lifetime, it certainly isn’t as mournful or pitiable a situation as popular culture may have led you to believe. It was actually all too common.
But, of course, there is one part of the Van Gogh mythology that really seems to stick: and that is his tragic suicide in 1890. We can really only speculate as to the reasons behind it and even how it truly came about, but a few supposed eyewitness accounts give us a hint at the narrative.
When Van Gogh moved to Auvers-sur-Oise in the weeks before his death, he took a room at a local inn in the center of town called the Auberge Ravoux. The innkeeper’s teenage daughter, Adeline, distinctly remembered the events of late July 1890 throughout her life and they had become part of her family’s legend, having been consistently reiterated by her innkeeper father. When she was in her mid-seventies, in 1953, Adeline committed them to paper. In her account, she wrote that on the morning of July 27th, Van Gogh had left the inn for his usual daily painting sessions, loaded down with his easel, canvases, paints, and so forth. But he deviated from his normal schedule when he did not return before sunset. This, she said, was unusual, and did not follow the artist’s typical habits and behavior. When he did return to the inn, it was after 9 PM and he was without his equipment, and Adeline’s mother noticed that the man was moving slowly towards his room, with his hands delicately holding his stomach. Adeline’s document describes what happened next: QUOTE:
"Mother asked him: “M. Vincent, have you had a problem?” He replied in a suffering voice: “No, but I have…” he did not finish, crossed the hall, took the staircase and climbed to his bedroom. I was witness to this scene. Vincent made such a strange impression on us that Father got up and went to the staircase to see if he could hear anything. He thought he could hear groans, went up quickly and found Vincent on his bed, moaning loudly: “What's the matter,” said Father, “are you ill?” Vincent then lifted his shirt and showed him a small wound in the region of the heart. Father cried: “unhappy man, what have you done?” “I have tried to kill myself,” replied Van Gogh."
Shooting oneself in the chest or stomach-- and accounts vary as to the exact location --is surely an insanely painful way to go. And it has the dubious distinction of not being as instantaneous a death as a shot to the temple or forehead might provide-- and my apologies for the morbidness of this discussion. Vincent’s injury wasn’t immediately fatal, then, so he spent the following two days in and out of consciousness with the ability to speak to Adeline’s family, the local police, and a couple of friends, including his physician, Dr. Paul Gachet. According to Adeline, during those final hours he revealed that he had gone into a wheat field, shot himself with a revolver, and passed out from the pain. Later that evening, he apparently was revived by the cooler temperatures of nightfall and awoke in search of the revolver to finish the job. When he was unable to relocate the gun, he then opted to return to his room at the inn. He even reiterated his intentions to the local police, saying QUOTE, "My body is mine and I am free to do what I want with it. Do not accuse anybody, it is I that wished to commit suicide.” Theo was alerted via telegram and quickly arrived by train with enough time to hold vigil over his dying brother. he then watched as his brother fell into a coma and died at approximately 1:30 AM on July 29th.
In over 100 years since the death of Vincent Van Gogh, this has been the widely-accepted story, put forth by experts and amateurs alike. And then in 2011, authors Gregory White Smith and Stephen Naifeh dropped their art historical bombshell and Van Gogh became a hot topic once more, his name scattered across thousands of websites and morning shows. Was Van Gogh murdered? Or could his death have been an accidental killing instead of a suicide?
Smith and Naifeh spent more than ten years researching and writing their book, which they hoped would become the definitive biography of Vincent Van Gogh. During that time, they were given rare access to the archival vaults of the Van Gogh Museum, which included everything from the artist’s preparatory sketches to hundreds of his handwritten letters. Once the authors began sorting methodically through this trove of information, they started finding strange or conflicting information about the reports surrounding the artist’s supposed suicide.
The first bit of intriguing information was the final letter that Van Gogh ever wrote, posted to Theo on the day he shot himself. According to Smith and Naifeh, the tone was joyful and energetic, with Vincent discussing his future. He also mentioned to Theo that he had placed a large order for new paint, so he was clearly thinking of his work, and seemingly as engaged as ever. This, naturally, conflicts with the idea that he was despondent and suicidal.
The second thing that struck the authors was the early firsthand accounts of Vincent's death- no one ever called it suicide, and mostly referred to the events as Vincent having “wounded himself.”-- not attempted to kill himself. And most importantly, no one was able to locate the revolver with which he supposedly shot himself, and no one, of course, came forward as a witness to any shooting. All of this doesn't seem too suspicious to me upon first glance, but it planted in Smith and Naifeh a seed of conspiratorial doubt. It seemed, they reckoned, that perhaps Van Gogh didn't intend to kill himself at all- and that a tall tale about suicide became the accepted narrative.
So where did the accepted tale of suicide actually begin, then? Smith and Naifeh point to one particular suspect - Emile Bernard, a fellow artist and supposed friend of Vincent’s, who reported the suicide story to an art critic whom he desperately hoped to impress. Bernard wrote that Vincent went out into the wheat fields that evening and Quote "left his easel against a haystack...and fired a revolver shot at himself." We should note that Bernard is getting this information secondhand- or he might very well have made it all up- because while he attended Vincent's funeral, he most certainly was not in Auvers prior to that point. Bernard, too, was known to be a fan of heightened drama, and he had already used his friend Vincent as a subject of a histrionic recollection a couple of years prior, when he relayed the tale of Van Gogh’s cut-off ear--spiced up with lots of extra emotion-- to the very same art critic.
In their recounting of the traditional take on Van Gogh’s death, Smith and Naifeh returned to that other eyewitness account--namely Adeline Ravoux’s 1953 recollection-- and they began to view it hyper-critically. They then throw every weapon in their arsenal at her in attempt to debunk the tale: she was old when she recorded her testimony; she relied too heavily on her father’s recounting of the event, which certainly had morphed over the years; and that her own version of the story had changed in its retelling as well, possibly to become even more dramatic- so that myth-making machine was working yet again. A final, possibly damning piece of evidence was that 1953 marked the hundredth anniversary of Van Gogh’s birth, and celebrations, press, and exhibitions abounded around the world, bringing the artist back into the spotlight. Adeline may very well have been capitalizing on a grand opportunity and good timing.
There was also the fact that Smith and Naifeh couldn’t find enough hard evidence in their years of research to actually get comfortable with the suicide theory. As we well remember, police looked for the weapon, to no avail. No one was a witness to the actual shooting, nor could the location of said shooting actually be fully determined. All that we have… is legend, and Ravoux’s tale. That is, until Smith and Naifeh brought forth the discovery of another supposed firsthand account that had somehow been overlooked or forgotten for many years.
In 1956, a frail man in his eighties named Rene Secretan stepped forward to give a series of interviews to French journalist Victor Doiteau. Like Adeline Ravoux three years earlier, he claimed to have a firsthand recollection of the famous artist. To Doiteau, Secretan spun a long, detailed narrative about his young adulthood. Rene grew up in a prosperous Parisian family, and every summer the Secretan crew would travel to Auvers to enjoy the relaxed surroundings of their vacation villa. In 1890, Rene was sixteen years old, and spent his time hunting, fishing, and generally causing all kinds of outdoorsy mischief with a group of like-minded pals. His hero was Buffalo Bill Cody, the American hunter and showman whose Wild West Show had performed to massive sold-out crowds in Paris just the year before, during 1889’s Exposition Universelle. Cody ran a show that included full-scale re-enactments of Native American attacks on stagecoaches, of horse races and rodeos, and shooting demonstrations featuring the likes of Annie Oakley. Incidentally, and as a side note-- Vincent, Theo, and others from their artistic coterie attended the Exposition that year, too, but most of them were far more intrigued by the foreign aesthetics of the Japanese Pavilion instead. But, back to Rene. He, like so many others at that time, was absolutely mad for the Cowboy craze, and he took his obsession with the American west to the extreme. So when his family moved to Auvers for the summer, Rene brought with him a much-prized costume consisting of a buckskin tunic, boots, and a cowboy hat, all purchased in Paris. But he felt the need to add a little more authenticity to his getup, so he supplemented with one more element: a 38-caliber pistol, which, according to Rene, was a real gun, but one that worked erratically. He used it to shoot birds and squirrels in the countryside, but it also did double-duty as a fairly-convincing intimidation apparatus. You see, Rene wasn’t the nicest kid in town. In fact, some of his favorite activities were to play pranks on the locals and to cause mayhem throughout the countryside. And in the summer of 1890, there was one particular person whom he especially enjoyed terrorizing.
Rene Secretan had an older brother, Gaston, who was the opposite of Rene. Whereas the younger Secretan boy was loud, brutish, and a troublemaker, Gaston was quiet, kinder, and more interested in art, culture, and music. So it is unsurprising that Gaston fell in with a solitary Dutch painter who wanted to spend his time talking shop and having a drink with a like-minded aesthete. On occasion, Rene would tag along with Gaston and listen in on his conversations with Vincent at the local bar. Mostly, though, he just wanted the opportunity to torment this man, who seemed to be an easy target for his mockery and practical jokes-- like putting salt in his coffee or hiding a garden snake in his paintbox. At first, Vincent seemed to take the teasing in stride-- after all, Rene was just a teenager, and if any of you have ever known a teenage boy, then you know that they are prone to all kinds of generalized idiocy. But then, something shifted: Rene’s pranks escalated, and Vincent grew more wrathful at his mistreatment. As Smith and Naifeh recount, by July of 1890, the atmosphere between the teen and the Dutchman had grown poisonous.
For Smith and Naifeh, little things began adding up-- an antagonistic, moody teenager, a malicious relationship, a revolver that seemed literally trigger-happy. Ultimately, they came to an alternative explanation of Vincent Van Gogh’s death: Rene Secretan, they say, shot Van Gogh-- either on purpose or accidentally. As the authors wrote in Van Gogh: The Life, QUOTE: “Rene had a history of teasing Vincent in a way intended to provoke him to anger. Vincent had a history of violent outbursts, especially when under the influence of alcohol. Once the gun in Rene’s rucksack was produced, anything could have happened--intentional or accidental--between a reckless teenager with fantasies of the Wild West, an inebriated artist who knew nothing about guns, and an antiquated pistol with a tendency to malfunction.” If Rene shot Vincent, it would be fairly easy to extrapolate what happened next: Vincent, probably unaware of the extent of his wound, may then have felt that his best option was to travel back to his room at the Ravoux Inn. And Rene, terrified of his actions, may have cleaned up the crime scene as best as he could, collecting Vincent’s art supplies and gun, and abandoning any evidence of their encounter.
In their book, Smith and Naifeh do a fine job of breaking down this theory element by element, even adding a series of explanatory bullet-points to demonstrate how their reconstruction fills in the gaps in the original narrative and eliminates areas of contradiction and doubt. It explains the lack of a weapon, as well as the inability to locate any of Van Gogh’s art supplies from that day. And there’s also the supposed inconsistencies of the bullet wound. No autopsy was done on the artist, but the doctors that attended his bedside-- Dr. Gachet, as well as a man named Dr. Joseph Mazery-- did firmly note that the angle at which the bullet had entered was oblique and not straight-on, as one would expect from a suicide or a shot from an extremely close range. Also, wouldn’t a suicidal person prefer to get the job done efficiently with a shot to the head instead of a blow to the chest or belly? Finally, there’s that lack of a suicide note. Van Gogh was undoubtedly close with his brother, Theo-- wouldn’t he have said goodbye to the person who loved him most in the world?
The only caveat to the theory, according to the biographers, is Van Gogh’s assurance to the innkeeper Ravoux and to the police that he had committed the shooting, and had done so with the express desire of bringing death upon himself. But Smith and Naifeh naturally have a response to this-- Vincent, they say, welcomed the opportunity to die. Considering his depression and mental illness, life wasn’t a bunch of roses for him, and so perhaps the idea of it coming to an end was a type of consolation, as well as a convenient way to eliminate his burdensome presence in his brother’s life. Indeed, the artist had once written and underlined the following statement: QUOTE “I would not expressly seek death… but I would not try to evade it if it happened.” If Rene Secretan accidentally did the artist a favor, then, why should Vincent sully Rene’s name, as well as that of his prominent family, by calling him a murderer?
Now, let me take the opportunity to step in here and say that the first thing I thought of when I read this account was that the timing of Rene Secretan’s story seemed rather suspicious. Like the Adeline Ravoux story, there was another Van Gogh milestone in 1956, the year that Secretan came forward with his account. It happened to be the year that the film version of Lust for Life hit theaters, so Van Gogh was once again on everyone’s mind. Rene noted that he wanted to tell his tale because Kirk Douglas’s portrayal of the artist was so markedly different from the Van Gogh that Rene himself had known, and he wanted to set the record straight. It seems that Rene mostly wanted to clarify the artist’s personality-- unlike Kirk Douglas, the real Van Gogh wasn’t Hollywood handsome or so honorable and clean-living. He was, in fact, a total mess-- prone to getting staggeringly drunk, occasionally belligerent, and all-around ragged. Rene Secretan, then, wanted to take some of the shine off the apple, and all the attention surrounding Lust for Life provided the opportune moment. But--it’s not that simple, is it? In his narrative to journalist Doiteau, Secretan was clear and lucid, and much of what he reported is verifiable by other accounts and witnesses. And he was surprisingly upfront about his own shortcomings, especially in regard to his bullying of Vincent. However, there was one part of the story that seemed not to fit-- and that was Secretan’s ultra-brief discussion of Vincent’s death. It is here, Smith and Naifeh say, that Rene Secretan turns nondescript and his mostly distinct memory becomes muddled. He told Doiteau that he knew nothing of Van Gogh’s death, as his parents had opted to leave Auvers prior to the incident. But Smith and Naifeh write that others claim to have seen the Secretan family in town on the day of the incident. Finally, Secretan stated that he only learned about Vincent’s death later in a Paris newspaper, but he couldn’t remember which paper he read--and Smith and Naifeh note that no such report has ever been found. The only point that Rene conceded was that yes, Vincent had used his pistol-- that part was true. But Rene said that Vincent had obviously stolen it from Rene’s rucksack, and Rene only realized it was missing after the fact.
Here again, Smith and Naifeh shed doubt on Rene Secretan’s narrative. Two things in particular struck them as odd: first, there was the fact that Rene so loved having that pistol around for its intimidation and coolness factors that it seems very strange that he wouldn’t have noticed it was missing, particularly when he supposedly carried it with him everywhere. But even sketchier is his insistence that he wasn’t around when the shooting occurred, and that the gun was never found. For me, here’s the stinger: Smith and Naifeh report that during the brief police inspection after the shooting, officials performed a town-wide inventory of all revolvers, which were rarely found in Auvers. Only one, apparently, was missing-- the one that had been last in the possession of Rene Secretan. And where was Rene? The police noted that he, along with his brother Gaston, had been spirited away from Auvers by their father in the middle of the night only hours after the shooting.
Some of you may remember that when Van Gogh: The Life was published in 2011, this alternate theory of the artist’s death made quite an impression. Around the world, headlines blazed in all-caps and huge fonts. “WAS VAN GOGH MURDERED?” they screamed. It was the ultimate in art-historical click bait. But I believe that such attention came as a surprise to Smith and Naifeh. They hadn’t made their hypothesis a major revelation in the book-- and in fact, it is buried in the very back, in an appendix to their nearly 1000-page volume. But it didn’t much matter-- the revelation spread like wildfire, and all around the world, art historians, curators, and critics jumped to the forefront to give their opinions on the demise of a man, gone for over 120 years. And a couple of years later, they sent two of their heavy hitters-- senior researchers from the Van Gogh Museum, in fact-- to refute the biography’s claims.
In the July 2013 issue of the eminent art journal The Burlington Magazine, researchers Louis Van Tilborgh and Teio Meedendorp struck back with an article titled, “The Life and Death of Vincent Van Gogh.” It is a very thorough and painstaking discussion, with the majority of the article dedicated to countering the murder claim. Van Tilborgh and Meedendorp take Smith and Naifeh’s hypothesis and dissect it bit-by-bit in an attempt to prove its falsity. They note that in certain circumstances, much of the biographers’ theories are pure assumptions made based on the tone of Rene Secretan’s statements and not the statements themselves. And to be fair, Smith and Naifeh are doing an awful lot of reading between the lines. For example, Secretan’s assurance that he knew nothing of Van Gogh’s death is viewed by Smith and Naifeh as a lie-- but for all we know, it could actually be a true statement, which is how Van Tilborgh and Meedendorp read it. This point-- about differing interpretations-- also plays into how the scientific or medical evidence can be read. For Smith and Naifeh, the details of Vincent’s wounds-- the angle of the bullet entry, the fact that the bullet never exited the body, and the types of powder residue and the bruising around the wound-- they all speak to the fact that the gun was apparently shot from somewhat of a distance, and certainly not by Vincent. Their notes reference that these deductions came to be after seeking assistance from various ballistics and medical professionals who would be familiar not only with bullet injuries but also with the types and usage of guns that might produce those injuries. The evidence, they say, is clear: Van Gogh was murdered.
But Van Tilborgh and Meedendorp state that their medical experts claim the opposite-- for example, that the gunpowder residue present around the wound would have been found on the skin only if Vincent had lifted his shirt to put the barrel to his own chest-- and would Rene Secretan have done such an odd thing? The counterarguments to the Smith and Naifeh narrative is, in my opinion, quite thorough and convincing, especially when they move to a final point-- the reasoning behind a potential suicide. Their analysis is comprehensive and lengthy, but in summary, it comes down to this: Smith and Naifeh point to multiple passages in Van Gogh’s own letters where he writes to Theo about his moral opposition to suicide-- remember that Vincent originally hoped to become a clergyman, and a sincere and strong Protestant worldview was very much at work throughout his life. The biographers, then, made a simple conclusion: Vincent Van Gogh wouldn’t have killed himself, as he didn’t believe in it. But Van Tilborgh and Meedendorp make the argument that one can trace Van Gogh’s shifting opinions on this matter, particularly after his mental health started deteriorating and he committed himself to the asylum at Saint-Remy. And Vincent was all-too-aware that he was both an emotional and a financial albatross around his brother’s neck, especially at the end of his life-- and he made this clear to Teo. In fact, there was a draft of a letter to Theo that was found on Vincent Van Gogh’s body when he shot himself, one which specifically shows Vincent's awareness of his brother’s financial responsibility and difficulties. This wasn't his final letter, mind you- it was actually a draft of an earlier one. regardless, Killing himself wouldn’t seem like a stretch as a way out of such familial anguish.
Essentially, between the two sets of authors, it really comes down to a battle of the evidence and the interpretation of that evidence. Which one is right? The fact of the matter is that we don’t have enough facts. We don’t have a really clear direction that lets us know, fully, that Van Gogh killed himself, or was killed by another person. We’re left with multiple narratives, most written far after the event. It’s just difficult to really know what actually happened on July 27, 1890.
In my humble opinion, I find the story that Smith and Naifeh report to be very intriguing. But honestly, it’s really hard for me to buy it. I concur with Van Tilborgh and Meedendorp’s statement about Van Gogh’s fluctuating psychological state, particularly when you consider his long battle with depression. Depression is an utterly terrible thing, and can make people consider options that they might never do otherwise-- including suicide-- even if they have previously confirmed that they are opposed to it. So Van Gogh’s strong dismissal of suicide throughout his life doesn’t persuade me too terribly. There’s also the fact that he may have attempted suicide before, with that possible self-poisoning incident while staying at the asylum in Saint Remy. It doesn’t seem like a stretch to me that he might attempt it again. It does make me question, though, why he didn’t just try poisoning again, since he would have had access to deadly chemicals in his paint kit, and would have been familiar with their usage and their abuse. Why not go that route than use a gun whose mechanics and operation would be a total unknown? Well, I suppose that the answer could be that Vincent may very well have thought of a gun as a sure-thing. And if he hadn’t succeeded in killing himself via poisoning the first time, perhaps trying it again would have seemed foolhardy.
There’s one more piece of information to tackle. In July of this year, 2016, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam held a brand-new exhibition called "On the Verge of Insanity," which profiled the artist and his work through the lens of his madness and mental instability. As part of the exhibition, curators included a number of artifacts central to the artist’s life-- and death. The item that has received the most interest is a small, rusted revolver. Nienke Bakker, the museum’s curator of paintings, said in a press release, QUOTE, “It was found in 1960 in the field where Van Gogh shot himself and has since been in private care. Forensic experts studied the amount of corrosion, ultimately declaring the gun to have been buried underground between 1880 and 1910, fitting the range of when the artist took his life.” And as Bakker confirmed, the small size of the gun also explains why its bullet didn’t exit Van Gogh’s body and why he didn’t die immediately-- the handgun was too small and too ineffective to promptly kill a human being.
But of course, even this curatorial note still leaves me asking at least one more question. Bakker confirms that the gun was buried. So-- who buried it? Was it as simple as being covered up by the elements, through the accumulation of dirt and debris? Or did the injured and suffering artist perform this as one of his final acts before trudging back to the inn? Or did someone else bury the gun?
Ultimately, though, it really doesn’t matter how Van Gogh died-- and I’ll rightfully admit that my discussion today probably just adds fuel to the fire of the Van Gogh myth. So I’ll get to the most important point right now: either way-- accidental killing, murder, or suicide-- the way that Van Gogh died isn’t the the important part. What IS important is that this artist lived. Though he passed away too early, his flame burned amazingly bright, and he left behind many hundreds of incredible works of art that have not only inspired generations, but have actually changed the course of art history. His paintings combined his interests in nature with his deeply emotional and spiritual life, leading to works of art that are more expressive and psychologically profound than the subjects which they illustrate. His style, too, has influenced some of the most important painters that came after him-- his aforementioned use of bright colors would later become a hallmark of the works of the Fauvists like Henri Matisse, and his impulsive, thick application of paint would inspire the works of Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock. So much of 20th century art owes a great debt to Vincent Van Gogh, and many, many books have been written extolling him and his art. Of course I think he would probably get a kick out of all the attention today. When he was alive, it was still a dream fueled by hopes and passions. As he wrote, QUOTE, By working hard, I hope to make something good one day. I haven’t yet, but I am pursuing it and fighting for it.”
Thank you for listening to this episode of the ArtCurious Podcast. This episode was written, produced, and narrated by me, Jennifer Dasal, with editing help from Josh Dasal.
The vast majority of my research on this fascinating story stems from Smith and Naifeh’s epic and epically researched biography, titled Van Gogh: The Life. If you liked today’s story and want even more detailed information about the murder theory, as well as hundreds of detailed pages about the artist’s life, I highly recommend seeking out this incredible book. A brief article written by the authors appeared also in Vanity Fair magazine in December of 2014, which gives readers a quick version of their controversial theory.
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