The Curious Death of Vincent van Gogh

The sto­ry of Vin­cent van Gogh’s sui­cide, like the removal of his ear, has been inte­gral to his mythos for a long time, immor­tal­ized by Kirk Dou­glas in the final scene of Vin­cente Minnelli’s film Lust for Life and in the 1934 bio­graph­i­cal nov­el of the same name by Irv­ing Stone. We’ve all accept­ed this as brute his­tor­i­cal fact, but, appar­ent­ly, “it’s all bunk,” Gre­go­ry White Smith and Steven Naifeh wrote in a 2014 Van­i­ty Fair arti­cle based on a decade of research for a new biog­ra­phy (Van Gogh: The Life).

“Though eager­ly embraced by a pub­lic in love with a hand­ful of mem­o­rable images and spell­bound by the thought of an artist who would cut off his own ear,” the authors argue, “Stone’s sui­cide yarn was based on bad his­to­ry, bad psy­chol­o­gy, and, as a defin­i­tive new expert analy­sis makes clear, bad foren­sics.” An expert analy­sis, you say? Yes. the world’s biggest posthu­mous art star has become an unsolved mys­tery, the sub­ject of a Buz­zfeed video above, part a series that also includes Edgar Allan Poe, JFK, Jim­my Hof­fa, and Natal­ie Wood.

Van Gogh’s sui­cide seems accept­ed as a fact by the Van Gogh Muse­um, at least accord­ing to their web­site, evi­denced by the mor­bid gloom of his late let­ters to his broth­er. But Van Gogh wrote “not a word about his final days,” Smith and Naifeh point out, and he left behind no sui­cide note, “odd for a man who churned out let­ters so prof­li­gate­ly.” A piece of writ­ing found on him turned out to be an ear­ly draft of his last let­ter to Theo, which was “upbeat—even ebullient—about the future.” He had every rea­son to be, giv­en the glow­ing suc­cess of his first show. “He had placed a large order for more paints only a few days before a bul­let put a hole in his abdomen.”

The sto­ry of how the hole got there involves a then-16-year-old Paris phar­ma­cist named René Secré­tan, who cru­el­ly bul­lied Van Gogh dur­ing his 1890 sum­mer in Auvers. (He also sat for some paint­ings and a draw­ing.) His involve­ment explains the “stud­ied silence” the com­mu­ni­ty main­tained after Van Gogh’s death. No one men­tioned sui­cide, but no one would say much of any­thing else either. Secré­tan became a wealthy banker and lived to see Kirk Dou­glas por­tray the eccen­tric artist he mocked as “Toto.” He lat­er admit­ted to own­ing the gun that killed Van Gogh, but denied fir­ing the shot.

The new evi­dence sur­round­ing Van Gogh’s pos­si­ble mur­der has been in the pub­lic eye for sev­er­al years now, but it hasn’t made much of a dent in the Van Gogh sui­cide leg­end. Still, we must admit, that sto­ry has always made lit­tle sense. Even schol­ars at the Van Gogh muse­um pri­vate­ly admit­ted to the artist’s biog­ra­phers that they had seri­ous doubts about it. These were dis­missed, they claimed, as being “too con­tro­ver­sial.” Now that Van Gogh has become a YouTube true crime unsolved mys­tery, there’s no shut­ting the door on spec­u­la­tion about his untime­ly and trag­ic demise.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Near­ly 1,000 Paint­ings & Draw­ings by Vin­cent van Gogh Now Dig­i­tized and Put Online: View/Download the Col­lec­tion

Vin­cent Van Gogh’s Self Por­traits: Explore & Down­load a Col­lec­tion of 17 Paint­ings Free Online

Vin­cent Van Gogh’s Favorite Books

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (2) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (2)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • EB says:

    The fact that some­one is “ebul­lient” right before com­mit­ting sui­cide doesn’t seem all that out of the ordi­nary to me — maybe Van Gogh was bipo­lar, with fits of mania and depres­sion. I read this arti­cle with inter­est and didn’t see much of any­thing to make me ques­tion the received view. As it stands, this just seems like sen­sa­tion­al­ist hearsay.

    We have enough prob­lems with con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries and mis­in­for­ma­tion these days — a charge like this should only be made if it has sub­stan­tive evi­dence to back it up.

  • Ronny says:

    I’m inclined to agree. While it’s an inter­est­ing hypoth­e­sis, the man had men­tal health issues and sui­cide is not improb­a­ble for him.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.