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The Fascinating Mystery of the Death of Vincent Van Gogh

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Ravi loves writing within the cusp of relationships, history, and the bizarre, where boundaries are blurred and possibilities are immense.

Vincent Van Gogh remained an enigma in his lifetime and even after his death.

Vincent Van Gogh remained an enigma in his lifetime and even after his death.

Was It Murder or Suicide?

It is one of the greatest mysteries of the art world but then the man himself was an enigma in his lifetime and even after his death.

Vincent Van Gogh’s life was plagued by multiple things, epilepsy, syphilis, alcoholism, and mental illness. He was the ultimate poster child for tortured misunderstood artists who channeled out his inner turmoil through blazingly intense masterpieces that made him one of those most iconic post-Impressionist painters of the century. The Dutch artist desperately sought recognition for his stupendous work, something he only achieved after his mysterious death.

On July 29th, 1890 Van Gogh left his lodgings in Auvers, Paris, and went to a nearby field to paint, taking all of his art equipment with him. That night when he returned, there was a bullet wound in his abdomen. On asking, he repeated multiple times “I have tried to kill myself” and died 20 hours later by slow, painful death.

Given the fact that he was mentally ill and had an infamous reputation of cutting off his ear and giving it to a prostitute, nobody suspected any foul play. It has always been assumed that he committed suicide.

But what if it wasn’t a suicide at all? What if the great painter was the victim, not of his own depression, but of a mysterious murderer?

That was the theory proposed by two American writers Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith in 2011 who wrote his biography in a best seller book titled Van Gogh: His Life. As Gregory White Smith said in an interview.

“Why would he have ended his days? This was not the most difficult period of his life. The version of the suicide is not credible”

Van Gogh was mentally ill and had an infamous reputation of cutting off his ear and giving it to a prostitute, nobody suspected any foul play. It has always been assumed that he committed suicide.

Van Gogh was mentally ill and had an infamous reputation of cutting off his ear and giving it to a prostitute, nobody suspected any foul play. It has always been assumed that he committed suicide.

The Mysterious Death of Vincent van Gogh

After a severe bout of mental illness that resulted in self-inflicting himself by cutting off his ear, Van Gogh moved to the quiet Paris suburb of Auvers-Sur-Oise in May 1890 to make a fresh start in life. Auvers is a lovely and underrated French village and Van Gogh’s creativity reached its highest potential as he created a rhapsodic outpouring of 70 paintings in 70 days. Things were again starting to look bright for him.

His paintings were intense and arresting masterpieces that conveyed his emotional state in a plethora of brilliant colors and exquisite craftsmanship. He painted some of his greatest masterpieces, Crows Over Wheatfield, the Portrait of Dr. Gachet, and Church at Auvers in his rented room at Auvers.

The fateful events that ended with his death started with a bright morning on 27 July 1890. He left the inn and went to the nearby wheat field with his painting equipment. Van Gogh intended to stay there for the whole day to paint his new masterpiece. He returned very late that evening and that was when the innkeeper’s daughter noticed that he had been fatally shot in the abdomen.

Van Gogh bluntly admitted that “I have tried to kill myself.” Death was slow and painful with the artist succumbing to his injuries hours later. Later his brother Theo also said that his brother was feeling ‘lonely’ and wanted to commit suicide. The artist’s epic struggle with mental illness was well known and the sad chapter was soon closed by the police.

What Really Happened to Vincent van Gogh That Fateful Day?

What Really Happened to Vincent van Gogh That Fateful Day?

What Really Happened to Vincent van Gogh That Fateful Day?

Years later in 2011, two American writers Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith who investigated the last days of Van Gogh in detail debunked the suicide theory. And their arguments are certainly worth thinking about.

As per the authors, four crucial points contradict the suicide theory.

  • Van Gogh was at the best time of his life. He was happy, at his creative best, and was in a peaceful frame of mind at Auvers. Why would he commit suicide?
  • He ordered more paint and supplies one day before his death. People who intend to commit suicide don’t do that.
  • Van Gogh’s belly wound was very unusual. People who want to commit suicide like to finish it off painlessly by shooting either in the neck or head.
  • The biggest point of all, there were no witnesses. The only testimony of Van Gogh’s admission of suicide comes from the innkeeper’s 13-year-old daughter who had changed her testimony at least three times during questioning.

Van Gogh seemed happy and productive in picturesque Auvers and such people don’t commit suicide.

As per Steven Naifeh, he was killed by a 16-year-old bully named René Secrétan, the son of a powerful Auvers businessman.

As per Steven Naifeh, he was killed by a 16-year-old bully named René Secrétan, the son of a powerful Auvers businessman.

Who Killed Him?

As per Steven Naifeh, he was killed by a 16-year-old bully named René Secrétan, the son of a powerful Auvers businessman. René Secrétan had a revolver and had a gang of miscreants who would trouble weak and helpless people. A weak and lonely Van Gogh was an easy target to him as René pretended to befriend Van Gogh in private but mocked him in public.

The bully played pranks on him by spoiling his paintings, throwing away his colors, or even putting a snake in his paintbox. Given the fragile mental state of Van Gogh, this constant troubling would have surely taken a toll on him at some point. The authors believe that the pranks went a bit too far on that fateful day resulting in the ‘accidental’ murder of Van Gogh.

But not all support this theory. Why did Van Gogh admit to killing himself? What should he support his bully? And the biggest dampener to the theory was that René Secrétan had an ironclad alibi of being out of Auvers on that fateful day.

That said, the mysterious death of Van Gogh certainly added to the mythical aura surrounding him, further reinforcing the ‘misunderstood genius’ image by which he is still recognized even 125 years after his death.

As Ann Dumas, curator at the Royal Academy of Arts in London and a Van Gogh expert says.

“If Vincent Van Gogh would have died of old age at 80 in 1933, basking in glory and in possession of his two ears, he would never have become the myth he is today.”

Sources

© 2021 Ravi Rajan

Comments

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on August 11, 2021:

Thanks Manatita for your comments

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on August 11, 2021:

Thanks, Peggy for your comments.

manatita44 from london on August 11, 2021:

An intriguing story, attempting to fill in the gaps surrounding the life and death of the painter extraordinaire van Gough. Excellent work!!

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on August 11, 2021:

I never realized that there was any controversary about the cause of Van Gogh's death. It is sad that he was so troubled during his life. His art keeps his legacy alive.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on August 11, 2021:

Thanks, Liza for your comments.

Liza from USA on August 11, 2021:

Thanks for your article, Ravi. It's fascinating to read something like this as I have a little knowledge about Vincent van Gogh.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on August 10, 2021:

Thanks, Denise for your comments.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on August 10, 2021:

Thanks Miebakagh

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on August 10, 2021:

I love the mystery about artists' demise. This one in particular is fascinating. I'm of the opinion that he didn't kill himself as well. Very good article.

Blessings,

Denise

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on August 10, 2021:

ravi, thanks for the much detailed information.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on August 10, 2021:

Thanks, John for your kind comments.

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on August 10, 2021:

This was very interesting, Ravi. I had never heard about his death being questioned, but anything is possible. I loves Van Gogh’s paintings.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on August 10, 2021:

Thanks Umesh

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on August 10, 2021:

Thanks Misbah

Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on August 10, 2021:

Very interesting.

Misbah Sheikh from The World of Poets on August 10, 2021:

I wish you a speedy recovery. God Bless you!

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on August 10, 2021:

Thanks, Misbah. Yes, the wounds have healed but it pains now and then so taking it slow for some time. Thanks for your kind comments.

Misbah Sheikh from The World of Poets on August 10, 2021:

Very nice and interesting article, Ravi.

Van Gogh died tragically unaware of the praise his work would gain. His legacy lives on today, and he is and will always be remembered as one of the finest artists of the modern era.

Nice to see you back. Bredz informed us about your accident. I hope you are doing well now.

Blessings to you!

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on August 10, 2021:

Thanks, Liz for your kind comments.

Liz Westwood from UK on August 10, 2021:

This is an interesting and well-illustrated article. I have always assumed that Van Gogh's death was due to suicide, but this article suggests an alternative scenario.

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