Art History Mystery #3: Was Vincent van Gogh Murdered?
Welcome back to the Accessible Art History blog! This week, I’ve got another art history mystery for you! I’m so glad this series has proven popular because it’s fascinating to research the darker side of one of my favorite subjects!
Before I dive into this post, I do want to post a trigger warning. The mystery I’m writing about today involves mental illnesses and a discussion of suicide.
Vincent van Gogh is one of the most beloved artists in history. Sadly, he died at the young age of 37 from a self inflicted gunshot wound. Or did he? Some historians believe he may have been murdered! So to learn more, keep on reading!
On July 27, 1890, Vincent van Gogh left the inn he called home and began his walk to the wheatfields that had captured his artistic attention. At the time, he was living in Auvers-sur-Oise in northern France. This beautiful area had captured his imagination and van Gogh painted some beautiful works that still resonate with viewers today.
Later that night, the artist slowly walked through the front door of the inn. Adeline Ravoux, the thirteen year old daughter of the innkeeper, recounted what she saw that night when she was 76 years old. According to her account, her father could tell that something was wrong right away. Together, the innkeeper and van Gogh went up to the artist’s room. It was then that van Gogh lifted his shirt and showed the man the gunshot wound in his stomach and revealed that he had tried to take his own life.
The innkeeper called for doctors and alerted van Gogh’s beloved brother Theo. However, nothing could be done for the dying man. Thankfully, Theo made it in time and was able to be there when Vincent passed in the early hours of July 29th. In a letter to his wife Joanna, Theo described the scene.
“He was glad that I came and we are together all the time... Poor fellow, very little happiness fell to his share, and no illusions are left him. The burden grows too heavy at times, he feels so alone..." And after his death, he wrote: "One of his last words was, 'I wish I could pass away like this,' and his wish was fulfilled. A few moments and all was over. He had found the rest he could not find on earth..."
It is well documented that van Gogh struggled with mental health issues his entire life. So, for those that knew him, it was tragic, but it also wasn't an entirely surprising event.
Nearly a century and a half later, two historians, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, published a biography, Van Gogh: The Life. In this book, they assert that van Gogh was actually the victim of accidental homicide. They believe that his surviving letters and last
paintings show a hopeful, upbeat man. In addition, van Gogh mentioned several times that he believed suicide was an immoral act. (This isn’t surprising as he had trained as a priest before choosing the artistic route.)
Naifeh and Smith back up their theory with a few pieces of evidence. The first is that descriptions of the bullet wound seem to indicate that the gun would have to have been held and shot from an incredibly awkward angle. Second, neither the gun nor van Gogh’s painting supplies were ever found.
However, the most convincing piece of evidence comes from archival records. In the 1930’s, historian John Rewald had traveled to Auvers to speak with residents who had known van Gogh during his stay there. Apparently, several people told Rewald that van Gogh had been accidentally shot by a teenage boy.
That boy was named René Secrétan. As a youth, he loved to dress up as his hero, Wild Bill Cody, complete with a real gun. In 1956, he admitted that he had tortured van Gogh verbally and loved to prank him. But denied shooting the artist.
This theory has been refuted by many prominent art historians. However, without more evidence, it is impossible to say for certain. Regardless of the manner of death, it is clear that Vincent van Gogh passed too soon.
Please remember that you aren’t alone. If you or someone you know is struggling, call the toll free number for the National Suicide Prevention hotline: 800-273-8255.
Blog Image: Self-Portrait, September 1889 - Vincent van Gogh - Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Vincent van Gogh on his Deathbed, Paul Gachet (1890) - Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Le Régional report of Van Gogh's suicide and funeral 7 August 1890 - Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons