Did Vincent van Gogh, one of the world’s greatest artists despite having sold just one painting in his short and tortured lifetime, commit suicide in 1890 in a wheat field in northern France?
Two American authors are now challenging the theory that the enigmatic post-Impressionist killed himself aged 37, saying he claimed to have attempted suicide to protect two teenaged brothers — one of whom shot him.
Van Gogh, who suffered prolonged bouts of mental illness and depression — he sliced off an ear once — was not contemplating taking his life, Gregory White Smith and Steven Naifeh argue in their new book “Van Gogh: The Life”.
“The version retained is not credible,” Smith said in an interview published in the Dutch newspaper NRC Next.
The duo, who won a Pulitzer Prize for their biography of US artist Jackson Pollock, spent 10 years researching their book, which argues that van Gogh was fatally shot in a farmyard in the town of Auvers-sur-Oise, near Paris.
Their hypothesis — which the head of the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam calls “spectacular” — has the art world talking.
“I must say, we feel we are in the middle of a whirlwind that we didn’t quite anticipate,” Naifeh told AFP by telephone from South Carolina, where he and Smith live.
“We anticipated this would generate, not quite this level of furore, but certainly some level of furore,” he said.
Naifeh added: “These pieces of evidence came from multiple different sources, and only by putting them all together does this alternative version emerge.”
On the CBS show “60 Minutes,” Naifeh asked: “How did he (Van Gogh) get the gun? Everybody in Auvers knew that he had been in an insane asylum. Pistols were a rarity in rural France. Who would’ve given Vincent van Gogh a gun?”
According to the authors, who had access to family letters and private correspondence, the painter left his boarding house on the fateful day — July 27, 1890 — with paints and easel.
“Why would he have waited just until this moment to end his days?” Naifeh told NRC Next. “He wasn’t going through the most difficult period in his life.
“Does someone paint when he has decided to end his life? It just simply does not hold,” he added.
Van Gogh — portrayed by Kirk Douglas in the 1956 film “Lust for Life” — returned to the boarding house run by the Ravoux family five hours later with a bullet wound and died in the arms of his brother Theo after 30 hours.
Smith said doctors at the time reported the bullet entered at a “crazy angle”. The gun and his painting supplies from that day have never been found.
The authors argue that van Gogh was shot, probably accidentally, by one of the Secretan brothers. They say one of them alleged that the artist had stolen his pistol.
When asked by police whether he had committed suicide, he is said to have replied from his deathbed: “I believe so. Don’t accuse anybody else… it is I who wanted to kill myself.”
According to the daughter of the boarding house owner — who was 13 at the time of van Gogh’s death — the painter replied “yes” when a doctor asked him if he had taken his own life.
Naifeh told CBS: “What the evidence points to is that this incident took place not in the wheat fields, but in a farmyard on the Rue Boucher. That it involved these two boys.
“And that it was either an accident or a deliberate act. Was it playing cowboy in some way that went awry? Was it teasing with the gun with Vincent lunging out? It’s hard to know what went on at that moment.”
The Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam — which had extended cooperation to the two authors — said the new theory was “interesting” but added it was premature to discard the long-held suicide theory.
Museum curator Leo Jansen said “there are still questions without answers regarding the suicide of Van Gogh,” but noted that the “spectacular” theory proposed by the two US writers also leaves “some questions unanswered”.
“The two authors have not found new facts, they have just interpreted them differently,” he said, also questioning why van Gogh would protect two boys “who never stopped bothering and teasing him?”
Naifeh said he believed “a couple of kids had shot Vincent van Gogh and he decided to basically protect them and accept this as the way to die. These kids had basically done him the favor of shooting him.
“He knew that he was a burden to Theo. So there’s something wonderfully sweet and touching about the fact that Vincent would accept death partly to end his own misery. But even more so to take this terrible burden off of his beloved ill brother’s shoulders.”
But Van Gogh — who once wrote that he would never amount to anything as a painter, and whose works now are among the most expensive pieces of art — would not have become the legend had he lived a normal life, leftist Dutch De Volkskrant daily said in an editorial on Tuesday.
“If Vincent van Gogh died of old age at the age of 80 in 1933, bathed in glory and in possession of both his ears, he would never have become the myth that he is today,” it said.
“His psychosis, his depressions, his errors and their manifestations — an ear severed, suicide — are as much the integral history of ‘Vincent van Gogh’ as the cypresses and wheat fields” he famously painted, it said.