*Content Warning: Mentions of suicide, murder, death and mental illness*
Vincent van Gogh, a 19th century Dutch impressionist, is remembered both for his revolutionary art and extraordinary life. In northern France on the morning of July 29, 1890, van Gogh died at the age of 37, leaving behind not only 1,300 pieces of art on paper and 900 paintings, but also sparking mystery and intrigue.
Van Gogh’s work as an artist was not respected by the people of Europe at the time, and he struggled to make ends meet while nomadically traveling around Europe for his career. Early in his life, he was fired from his art internship that he had been a part of for several years; this caused him to wander around in search of his purpose. Over the next five years of his life, Van Gogh attempted to start an art collective that ultimately failed, and continued to nomadically move throughout Europe. During this period of his life, however, his famous style of painting began to develop; lighter tones, short brush strokes, and colorful subjects such as urban scenes and portraits.
Unfortunately for van Gogh, this period of growth and development in his art also occurred alongside his declining mental health. Most notably being in 1888 when the starving artist severed his own ear and gifted it as a present for a prostitute. The day after this incident, van Gogh was admitted to a hospital where he remained until early in 1889. Over the next few months at the hospital, van Gogh struggled even more with his mental health and decided to check himself into a psychiatric hospital in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in May of 1889.
During his stay at this psychiatric hospital, van Gogh created some of his most iconic artworks; including “Irises” which was a depiction of the asylum’s garden and “Starry Night” which was a depiction of the view from one of the windows. Overall, during his one year long stay at the asylum, he created roughly 150 paintings. Finally in 1890, his work was displayed in galleries for the first time and received positive reviews from critics.
After one year in May of 1890, van Gogh left the mental hospital and moved to the artistic town of Auvers-sur-Oise, located not far from Paris. This area was a great place for van Gogh to live due to its proximity to Paris, which allowed for him to visit his younger brother Theo’s family in Paris.
On one of these visits, Theo told Vincent that he was considering starting his own business, which greatly upset Vincent, who had felt like a burden to his brother — as he was dependent on him financially — and also was worried that Theo would be essentially gambling off of his own finances. On July 27, 1890, Vincent left the Ravoux Inn in the city of Auvers-sur-Oise that he was staying in with his easel and painting supplies. Upon his arrival back to the hotel in the afternoon, guests dining had reportedly noted that van Gogh quietly shuffled past them, with his jacket buttoned up fully and without any of his painting supplies that he had left with. It was odd that he wore his jacket as it was warm outside, but what was even more concerning was that van Gogh was clutching at his abdomen before limping up the stairs to his room.
The owner of the inn, Gustave Ravoux, was concerned for van Gogh and went to check in on the artist. Ravoux recounts that van Gogh was curled up on his bed. Ravoux asked him what the matter was, and van Gogh replied “I wounded myself” before lifting his top to reveal a bullet gash in his abdomen below his ribs.
Van Gogh’s brother Theo arrived midday on July 28th to find him sitting in bed while smoking. Van Gogh died early on the morning of July 29th shortly after midnight while being cradled within his brother’s arms. Shortly before dying, van Gogh told Theo that “I want to die like this”. At the relatively young age of 37 years, Vincent van Gogh’s life and career as an artist ended.
Naturally theories regarding van Gogh’s death sprang up; with no autopsy completed, the location of the shooting being unknown, and the five hour period of time when van Gogh was not at the inn being unaccounted for.
The first leading theory regarding van Gogh’s death is that he was a troubled genius who willingly decided to commit suicide by shooting himself in a wheat field. According to Adeline Ravoux, the thirteen year old daughter of the inn owner, Gustave Ravoux:
“Vincent had gone toward the wheat field where he had painted before. During the afternoon, as my father understood it, Vincent shot himself and fainted. The coolness of the night revived him. On all fours, he looked for the gun to finish himself off, but he could not find it. Then Vincent got up, and climbed down the hillside to return to our house.”
No one could have been more adamant about this theory than van Gogh himself. Witnesses at the time recalled him saying:
“I wounded myself in the fields. I shot myself with a revolver there.” Van Gogh spoke emphatically, telling them “Do not accuse anyone. It is I who wanted to kill myself.”
Witnesses did note, however, that van Gogh appeared to be in a confused state as he lay slowly dying. Van Gogh responded to a question by police “Did you intend to commit suicide?” with simply “I think so.” In his past, van Gogh had also made morbid and dark jokes about suicide. Even once telling Theo he would “cease to be” if he ever felt like he had begun to be a burden or nuisance to his brother.
Van Gogh’s history of mental illness, frequent mentions of suicide, and his fear of becoming a burden to his soon-to-be unemployed brother’s life all point towards van Gogh deciding to commit suicide. However, while this idea is the one that van Gogh seemingly wanted the people to know, there are some issues that counter this theory.
For starters, van Gogh was shot in the abdomen below the ribs, which is a seemingly odd position to take if he had been aiming to shoot himself in the heart. In addition to this, the bullet used to shoot van Gogh did not pass through his body, which suggests that he was shot at a distance, a distance that was greater than he could have achieved on his own. Another thing to note is that van Gogh supposedly dropped the gun so far out of his reach so far that he could not find it to finish the job upon regaining consciousness. Finally, if van Gogh had truly passed out for hours after wounding himself, his wound would have been much bloodier than it was by the time he arrived back to the hotel; suggesting that he was shot sooner than he said it happened.
In addition to the aforementioned issues, no one knows where van Gogh would have obtained a gun. Revolvers, which is what van Gogh claimed to have shot himself with, were very rare in Auvers-sur-Oise at the time and no one admitted to selling or lending one to him. When searching the field the next day, no one was able to find any kind of gun and all of the painting supplies he brought there were missing.
Another point which counters the idea that van Gogh committed suicide is that he was a deeply religious man who had previously condemned suicide. Van Gogh deemed suicide as “wicked” and a demonstration of one’s “moral cowardice”. At one point, van Gogh even stated, “I really do not think I am a man with such inclinations” in reference to suicide. Anytime he did experience suicidal thoughts, these thoughts centered around death through drowning, even saying “I can understand people drowning themselves.”
Theo had also found no evidence suggesting that Vincent was planning on committing suicide. There was no suicide note to be found, but instead drafts of letters sitting on his desk that he would have wanted to keep private.
The theory that Vincent van Gogh committed suicide has so many loose ends and aspects that are left unaccounted for, sparking alternative theories on his death to be made. A theory posited by biographical authors Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith suggests that van Gogh was shot by some local boys and that he chose to protect their identities.
Life in Auvers-sur-Oise for van Gogh was interesting; he was known to be an eccentric and intimidating presence. His appearance did not help, as he had messy and wild hair, ratty clothing, and a noticeable missing ear. Due to his nature and appearance, van Gogh was bullied and teased by local teenage boys. They would reportedly pretend to be nice to van Gogh to gain his trust before pulling pranks on him; for example pouring salt into his coffee, rubbing chili pepper on one of his brushes that he often sucked on, and even going as far as putting a snake in his box of art supplies.
One of the boys in the group who would frequently tease van Gogh, 16-year-old René Secrétan stated, “Our favorite game was making him angry, which was easy.”
René’s older brother, Gaston, was an aspiring artist who enjoyed hearing van Gogh’s personal tales regarding the Parisian art world. Van Gogh figured that René was just a minor obstacle that he would have to deal with in order to have a friendship with Gaston.
Unlike Gaston, René was uninterested in art while enjoying hunting and fishing. After watching Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show in Paris, René returned to Auvers-sur-Oise decked out in a full western outfit — including a fringed jacket, cowboy boots, and a pistol — leading to van Gogh starting to call the boy “Puffalo Pill”, which was a mispronunciation of “Buffalo Bill” due to accent, which greatly angered René.
In their book “Van Gogh: The Life”, Naifeh and Smith speculate that the Secrétan boys had quarreled with van Gogh around the farmland on Boucher Road. Suggesting that the boys may have accidentally fired the pistol, shooting van Gogh in the abdomen. After this, van Gogh would have then stumbled back in the direction of the inn, and proceeded to cover up the boys’ crime by claiming it was his own doing. Out of shock for their actions, the boys could have gathered his belongings and left the scene to destroy any evidence that could point to them being the culprits.
This theory proposed by Naifeh and Smith is supported by the fact that multiple witnesses saw van Gogh leave the inn towards the direction of the farm; not towards the wheat fields that he claimed he had been painting in. This road led to a spot in the area where René had frequently visited to go fishing. It is a possibility that René and Gaston met van Gogh on their way back from their fishing spot, went to a nearby farmyard, and accidentally shot him.
This murder theory would account for more things than the suicide story does, including the odd entry point of the bullet, the lack of a suicide note, why van Gogh brought his painting supplies with him, why his painting gear was missing, and why van Gogh did not shoot himself in an easier place (such as in the head).
Shortly after the shooting René, Gaston, and their father left town. Upon returning, René, who had been known to rarely travel without having his pistol on him, no longer had the gun. When he was asked about this decades later, René said that van Gogh had stolen it from him. In the 1930s when van Gogh’s work began to gain notoriety and recognition, local townspeople told an art historian that “young boys” had shot van Gogh on accident and that he had protected their identities in fear that they would be accused of committing murder.
Even now, largely due to Irving Stone’s 1934 novel “Vincent’s Life and Death” and the movie that followed in 1956, the idea of Vincent van Gogh living as a tortured genius who chose to take his own life is still cemented in public consciousness. Similarly to many young adults, van Gogh spent much of his life in search of a purpose and trying to find a path that could fulfill himself while bringing others joy. At the time of his death, van Gogh did not know that his artwork would soon come to be beloved by thousands in future generations and serve as inspiration for many others to pursue their true purpose in life. However, the only person to know exactly how that fateful bullet found its way into van Gogh’s abdomen is Vincent van Gogh himself.
Photo Credit: thoughtco.com