Saturday, June 13, 2015

Vincent van Gogh: Suicide, Murder or Manslaughter?

The name Vincent van Gogh (30 March 1853 – 29 July 1890) immediately inspires mental images of starry nights, illuminated cafes, wheat fields and rural scenes under sunlight, sunflowers and self portraits. Those familiar with his life will know of his unhappiness and tortured soul, that he cut off part of an ear to give to a prostitute and that finally it all proved too much and he committed suicide by shooting himself in the upper abdomen.

There are experts, however, who question that last assertion. 

Van Gogh’s death:

In 1899 van Gogh’s mental health had been deteriorating, with repeated relapses causing him to be institutionalised in various asylums. Notwithstanding those mental issues, he painted some of his most iconic works, including Starry Night, during this period. In May 1890, after a lengthy relapse, he was discharged again. He stayed in Auvers, France, and in this period up to his death on 29 July 1890 he painted 70 works. There is no precise knowledge as to which work was his last, although some experts believe that it was Wheat Field with Crows, a work that is strongly evocative of loneliness and sorrow:

On the night of 27 July 1890 van Gogh returned to the inn at which he was staying. He was discovered to have a bullet wound near his heart and he offered an explanation that he had tried to kill himself, had passed out and had been revived by the coolness of the evening. He said that he had looked for the revolver to finish the suicide but could not find it. He had therefore walked back to the inn. Van Gogh died on 29 July, with his brother Theo beside him.

The suicide explanation:

The common assumption has been that Vincent tried to kill himself and that he ultimately succeeded, although not immediately. This is supported by his own words at the time and that such an explanation is consistent with Vincent’s deteriorating mental state. People involved with him at the time all had their own reasons to push an explanation of suicide.  Biographers have adopted such explanations and this has reinforced the common belief that Vincent killed himself in a fit of mental anguish and depression.

The 1956 biopic Lust for Life with Kirk Douglas as Vincent accepts and portrays that explanation. It depicts Vincent in a wheat field trying to paint the image in front of him. He despairs at not being able to put on canvas what he sees; he is attacked by crows, which he adds to the painting and, finally, in despair, he writes a suicide note and shoots himself.

Kirk Douglas as Vincent van Gogh in Lust for Life

Except that in real life no one knows exactly what happened, there was no note and there is no knowledge as to which was his last work. The despair portrayed in the film at the time of his death is supposition and there is nothing to evidence that the shooting took place at the wheat field.

An alternative explanation:

Van Gogh biographers Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith in their 2011 biography Van Gogh: The Life advanced a hypothesis that van Gogh did not shoot himself but was shot by someone else.

They cite the following:

· Van Gogh, a prolific writer of letters to his brother, wrote nothing about the shooting. A letter posted the day of the shooting was optimistic about the future.

· A couple of days before he had ordered more paints.

· Vincent had painted a number of upbeat paintings just before his death.

· There was no suicide note.

· How did Vincent get a gun, given his mental condition?

· No gun was found.

· His painting gear was never found.

· Suicides by gunshot wound rarely shoot themselves in the stomach.

“ . . . what kind of a person, no matter how unbalanced, tries to kill himself with a shot to the midsection? And then, rather than finish himself off with a second shot, staggers a mile back to his room in agonizing pain from a bullet in his belly?”

· Contemporary reports do not mention suicide.

· The deathbed doctors could make no sense of his wounds. The bullet entered his body at an oblique angle, not straight.

· Artistic appreciation of van Gogh’s works had begun, with favourable reviews appearing.

· Local witnesses had reason to push a suicide theory or were known for being unreliable.

Their suspect? René Secrétan, the 16-year-old son of a Paris pharmacist whose family summered in Auvers: “. . . he modelled his behavior on his hero, Wild Bill Cody, whose Wild West Show René had seen in Paris the year before. He bought a souvenir costume (fringed buckskin, cowboy hat, chaps) and accessorized it with an old, small-caliber pistol that looked menacing but often misfired.” The biographers record that Rene and his circle of friends liked to play tricks on van Gogh and sometimes bully him. 
“The eminent scholar John Rewald had travelled to Auvers in the 1930s and interviewed locals when the painter’s death was still in living memory. Later, he confided to many people, including at least one on the record, a rumor he had heard there: that some “young boys” had shot Vincent accidentally. The boys never came forward, he was told, because they feared being accused of murder, and Vincent chose to protect them as a final act of martyrdom.”

Later forensic opinion:

The murder/manslaughter hypothesis inspired attacks and criticism from van Gogh experts and suicide theory defenders, causing the authors to subsequently seek an opinion from handgun forensic expert Dr Vincent Di Maio. That expert had been a key witness in the trial of George Zimmerman for the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012.

The results of that forensic investigation are set out in a December 2014 Vanity Fair article which can be read at 

According to Dr Di Maio:

· For van Gogh to have shot himself, it would have required strange contortions of the hand.

· Handgun cartridges in 1890 were loaded with black powder because smokeless powder had only recently been developed (1884) and was used only in a few military rifles. “Black powder is extremely dirty,” Di Maio wrote. “On burning, 56% of its mass is solid residue. Close range wounds from black powder are extremely dirty.”

· No witnesses described any such powder burns.

· If van Gogh had shot himself, “[he] would have held the muzzle of the revolver at most a few inches away and most probably it would be in contact with the body.” In such a case, “there would have been soot, powder tattooing and searing of the skin around the entrance. These would have been grossly evident. None of this is described [in any of the forensic accounts]. This indicates the muzzle was more than a foot or two away (closer to two rather than one).”

· According to Dr Di Maio: “It is my opinion that, in all medical probability, the wound incurred by Van Gogh was not self-inflicted. In other words, he did not shoot himself.”


At the end of the day, does it matter? No one will be prosecuted for manslaughter, the death was 125 years ago. Van Gogh’s works will not be any different, enjoyment of them will not alter whether he was shot by someone else or he took his own life.

What is interesting is what is quoted at the end of the Vanity Fair article:
Years ago, when all this began to emerge from our research, a curator at the Van Gogh Museum predicted the fate that would befall such a blasphemy on the Van Gogh gospel. “I think it would be like Vincent to protect the boys and take the ‘accident’ as an unexpected way out of his burdened life,” he agreed in an e-mail. “But I think the biggest problem you’ll find after publishing your theory is that the suicide is more or less printed in the brains of past and present generations and has become a sort of self-evident truth. Vincent’s suicide has become the grand finale of the story of the martyr for art, it’s his crown of thorns.”

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