Van Gogh did not kill himself, authors claim

Vincent van Gogh did not kill himself, the authors of new biography Van Gogh: The Life have claimed.

Vincent van Gogh

Vincent Van Gogh self-portrait, 1887
  • Dutch painter largely unappreciated in his lifetime
  • Artistic career lasted just a decade, cut short when he died aged 37 in 1890
  • Posthumously revered for his richly-hued and impressionistic works such as Sunflowers and Starry Night

Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith say that, contrary to popular belief, it was more likely he was shot accidentally by two boys he knew who had "a malfunctioning gun".

The authors came to their conclusion after 10 years of study with more than 20 translators and researchers.

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam called the claim "dramatic" and "intriguing".

In a statement, however, curator Leo Jansen said "plenty of questions remain unanswered" and that it would be "premature to rule out suicide".

He added that the new claims would "generate a great deal of discussion".

Van Gogh died in Auvers-sur-Oise, France, in 1890 aged 37.

The Dutch master had been staying at the Auberge Ravoux inn from where he would walk to local wheat fields to paint.

It has long been thought that he shot himself in a wheat field before returning to the inn where he later died.

Cowboy game

But author Steven Naifeh said it was "very clear to us that he did not go into the wheat fields with the intention of shooting himself".

"The accepted understanding of what happened in Auvers among the people who knew him was that he was killed accidentally by a couple of boys and he decided to protect them by accepting the blame."

Van Gogh: The Life consists of 900-plus well-written pages of intensely researched biographical detail about an artist who, in 10 prolific years, introduced an expressionistic style of painting that changed art forever.

In a short chapter at the end of the book, the authors start to make their case that Vincent van Gogh was shot by a 16-year old boy called Rene Secretan, who had a history of tormenting the troubled artist.

On why he would cover for a boy he loathed, the authors reasoned, "because Vincent welcomed death" and didn't want to drag the brothers "into the glare of public enquiry… for having done him this favour".

They lavish praise on their two main sources and pay little heed to the one person who was definitely there - Vincent van Gogh - when he quite clearly said: "Do not accuse anyone... it is I who wanted to kill myself."

As they admit in the book, the truth of the matter is that, "surprisingly little is known about the incident". Which leaves, of course, plenty of room for conjecture.

He said that renowned art historian John Rewald had recorded that version of events when he visited Auvers in the 1930s and other details were found that corroborated the theory.

They include the assertion that the bullet entered Van Gogh's upper abdomen from an oblique angle - not straight on as might be expected from a suicide.

"These two boys, one of whom was wearing a cowboy outfit and had a malfunctioning gun that he played cowboy with, were known to go drinking at that hour of day with Vincent.

"So you have a couple of teenagers who have a malfunctioning gun, you have a boy who likes to play cowboy, you have three people probably all of whom had too much to drink."

He said "accidental homicide" was "far more likely".

"It's really hard to imagine that if either of these two boys was the one holding the gun - which is probably more likely than not - it's very hard to imagine that they really intended to kill this painter."

Gregory White Smith, meanwhile, said Van Gogh did not "actively seek death but that when it came to him, or when it presented itself as a possibility, he embraced it".

Gregory White Smith and Steven Naifeh describe some of their findings for the book

He said Van Gogh's acceptance of death was "really done as an act of love to his brother, to whom he was a burden".

He said Van Gogh's brother, Theo, was funding the artist who, at that time, "wasn't selling".

Other revelations claimed by the authors include that:

  • Van Gogh's family tried to commit him to a mental asylum long before his voluntary confinement later
  • Van Gogh fought so furiously with his parson father that some of his family accused the artist of killing him
  • Van Gogh's affliction, viewed as a mix of mania and depression, was a result of a form of epilepsy

Gregory White Smith said the biography, published on Monday, helped to give a greater understanding of a "frail and flawed figure" and that his art would be seen "as even more of an achievement".

Thousands of previously untranslated letters written by the artist were among documents studied by the authors to create a research database containing 28,000 notes.

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