Van Gogh death claim unconvincing

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Media captionThe 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.

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Media captionRoyal 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.