Van Gogh death claim unconvincing


The Dutch painter died in 1890 aged just 37

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

It is an important book, which has been well written by its two Pulitzer Prize-winning authors (won in 1991 for the biography of Jackson Pollock).

We learn that Vincent Van Gogh was much more unstable, erratic and promiscuous than previously thought.

We are also told that for many, including family, friends, other artists such as Georges Seurat and Toulouse Lautrec, he was a mighty pain in the neck: drunken, aggressive and coarse.

But it is the short chapter at the end of the book that will generate the most debate.

Royal Academy curator Anne Dumas says regardless of how Van Gogh died, the legacy of his work is "indisputable"

On page 851 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.

They make a good, but not utterly convincing, argument.

On answering why the dying Vincent would have covered up the truth for a boy he loathed (who, they say was with his brother Gaston, with whom Vincent was friendly) 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".

That doesn't sound a strong enough case upon which to base their argument.

They lavish praise and authority (too much perhaps) on their two main sources upon which they built their version of events. And pay little heed to the one person who was definitely there - Vincent Van Gogh - when he quite clearly said, "Do not accuse anyone," he said, "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.

Will Gompertz Article written by Will Gompertz Will Gompertz Arts editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    He didn't cut off his ear? He didn't shoot himself?

    In my book, I'm going to prove that his brother Theo did the paintings.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.


  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    I am getting pretty blase whenever someone publishes a new book and claims to find something new on an historical event. How the authors of this book can claim to have definitive proof on this is beyond me. The evidence is circumstantial at best.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    The earlier version of this article had one of the boys wearing a 'cowboy outfit.' Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show was the first of its kind to visit France. It went only to Paris, Lyon and Marseilles in 1898 [& not again until 1905]. Was franchising so good in 1898 that the boys travelled from Auvers to Paris, saw the show & then acquired a cowboy outfit? Possibly but I very much doubt it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    It's interesting about the Buffalo Bill as Van Gogh died in 1890, though the boys were on holiday from Paris. Apparently there's a drawing in the Louvre by Van Gogh ;of a boy in a cowboy outfit.
    Other biogs say he borrowed a shot gun to shoot crows, which would explain 'disappearing' easel. Also oblique angle of shot to chest (long barrel?). I reckon it was a self-inflicted cry for help.


Comments 5 of 8



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