a painting by Vincent Van Gogh

The Mysterious Death of Vincent van Gogh

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On July 27, 1890, painter Vincent van Gogh left the inn where he’d been staying with his painting equipment. He returned after dark with a bullet hole in his stomach, just below his ribs, claiming to have injured himself. He died two days later. Had he perished by his own hand, as he claimed, or had something more sinister transpired? What lies behind the mysterious death of Vincent van Gogh?

The life and times of Vincent van Gogh

Just like we explored the life of Edgar Allan Poe in my last “mysterious death” segment, we’ll first discuss Vincent van Gogh’s life and how it may bear on the circumstances of his death. But let me first give yet another big thank you to Gillian Knight, @liljeani on Twitter, who once again suggested the topic for this post. She runs a podcast, Smiling Horror, that you should certainly check out. We got connected on Twitter and I contributed one of my poems, “River Water,” to Smiling Horror. Since then, we’ve become fast Twitter buds!

Vincent van Gogh was born on March 30, 1853, in Zundert, Holland (the Netherlands), into an upper-middle class family. As a young man, van Gogh was quiet, thoughtful, and interested in art. Although he was a good student, he left school to become an apprentice to an art dealer. During his time working for that dealer, he traveled Europe, spending in London, where he became seriously depressed for the first time in his life, and then in Paris, after which he was dismissed from the company.

Following his dismissal, he moved back in with his parents. He would live with them on and off until the end of his life. He also developed a close relationship with his younger brother Theo, one of five younger siblings. Theo would later support his older brother financially, which led to some degree of anxiety on the part of Vincent.

van Gogh’s career

It’s important to note that although Vincent van Gogh is a household name today, he was a failure during his lifetime — his iconic style wasn’t recognized as artistically important until after his death. This may have been one of the reasons why he struggled with constant depression throughout his life.

Perhaps as a result of the depression, or perhaps not, van Gogh also suffered several psychotic breaks. During the most notable of these, he severed his own ear and delivered it to a brothel worker (it’s unclear whether the worker was actually a prostitute or performed some other function). The picture to the right shows van Gogh’s self portrait with a bandaged ear.

This break coincided with the end of his friendship with the famous French artist Gauguin. Throughout his lifetime, van Gogh’s personal relationships were fraught with trouble. His deepest friendship, with his brother Theo, still suffered from time to time. Theo once described living with his older brother Vincent as “almost unbearable.”

van Gogh self portrait with a severed ear

It was not until roughly two years before his death that van Gogh had an artistic breakthrough and developed his iconic style. He painted many of his most iconic paintings, including Irises and Starry Night, while staying in the Saint-Paul asylum. He’d checked himself in there after suffering numerous mental breakdowns. In all, he painted over 200 pieces while in that asylum.

In May of 1890, van Gogh left the Saint-Paul asylum and relocated to the village of Auvers-sur-Oise. He had chosen the location because it was near his doctor, Paul Gachet, and closer to his brother Theo in Paris. He arranged board at an inn in the village and began painting the surrounding cornfields. Below is one of his final paintings, though perhaps not the last, titled Wheatfield With Crows

And that brings us up to the mysterious death of van Gogh. The circumstances surrounding it began on July 27, 1890, when van Gogh left the inn, as he did most mornings, with his painting equipment. Here is where some of the dispute begins. The innkeeper’s daughter, who was thirteen at the time, recalls van Gogh setting off towards the fields where he had been painting for many weeks. But Theo later attested that van Gogh’s last painting had been a “forest scene.” 

Regardless of where van Gogh was working that day, he returned after dark — later than normal — without his equipment, clutching his stomach. Later that night, he revealed a bullet wound to the innkeeper, saying that he had injured himself.

the van Gogh painting Wheatfield With Crows

I have painted three more large canvases. They are vast stretches of corn under troubled skies, and I did not have to go out of my way very much in order to try to express sadness and extreme loneliness…

Thus wrote van Gogh to his family early in July 1890. But his letters contain mixed information. He seemed to be attempting to make the best of the village and its country surroundings. It’s difficult to retrospectively judge someone’s mental condition from their work at the time, though I wouldn’t say it’s completely impossible to pull something from their works. The paintings van Gogh describes in the above quote sound like Wheatfield With Crows, which is certainly a somber painting that seems to express loneliness and despair.

Some biographers have suggested that since van Gogh was in the middle of a productive period in July of 1890, he wouldn’t have been apt to kill himself. I don’t think this is a conclusion that can be drawn. Depression is an insidious beast, and the reckless urge to commit suicide can seemingly come out of nowhere. It’s important to remember that not all suicides are “premeditated” — that is, not all suicides involve a well thought out plan. Rather, many occur in reckless moments. All the same, let’s examine a few facts and see if they point toward suicide, murder, or something else.

van Gogh’s doctor and brother both believed his death to be the result of suicide.

van Gogh had a history of suicide attempts: he’d attempted to poison himself with his paints and turpentine, and there was also the incident of self-mutilation (the severed ear). He’d also been complaining of sadness and loneliness during the last months of his life, and had a clear history of depression. (Whether this depression was caused by major depressive disorder or by some other condition, we can’t say, but it manifested as depression regardless.)

Theo, upon arriving, concluded that his older brother had finally taken the plunge to end his life. He was saddened, but when Vincent fell into a coma and passed away, he declared that it was for the better.

Moreover, Vincent himself reported to police that his condition was the result of attempted suicide. He stated it emphatically and also added a line about not blaming anyone else, which some have argued points towards the guilt of some other party.

a raven on a pole symbolizing Edgar Allan Poe's famous poem The Raven

How did the murder theory arise?

Two biographers, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, pioneered the theory that murder, not suicide, lay behind the mysterious death of Vincent van Gogh. They argued that the awkward entry of the bullet pointed towards murder — that the fact that the bullet had not exited the body pointed towards murder — and that the fact that Vincent had been living a relatively “normal” existence prior to his death pointed towards murder or, rather, away from suicide. They also pointed towards two teenage boys who had been interviewed by police in the aftermath of Vincent’s death, because one of them was in possession of a revolver. These two boys, especially the younger who owned the revolver, had teased and bullied van Gogh mercilessly since his arrival Auvers-sur-Oise.

And apparently, revolvers were uncommon in the village where van Gogh died. I’m not sure I buy this fact. If a teenage boy was able to easily get his hands on a revolver — because he was obsessed with the Wild West — then I’m pretty sure other people could’ve come into possession of revolvers. I think that the townspeople probably didn’t want anyone to know who had supplied van Gogh with the weapon, or who he had stolen it from. It could have been the revolver belonging to the teenage boy, or it could have been another one. In the 1960s, a revolver matching the description of the one van Gogh (or a murderer) would have used surfaced in the fields surrounding the village.

Note that I say murder, whereas the biographers tend to call this incident accidental murder or a plain accident. Judging the description of the boys’ relationship with van Gogh, I doubt that this was a complete accident. Accident would imply that the three were horsing around together, and van Gogh accidentally got shot. I think there is a possibility that the younger brother murdered van Gogh, or that van Gogh goaded him into murderous action in an attempt to die without committing suicide (he had expressed qualms about suicide at other points in his life).

When it comes to discerning the cause of van Gogh’s death, it’s also worth noting that some new information has come out about his last painting. Art historians now believe that it was the painting Tree Roots, pictured below with the exact location of the tree roots they think inspired van Gogh. Some have gone as far as to say that van Gogh painted Tree Roots on the day he died. I take issue with this for several reasons. For one, all witnesses attest that van Gogh returned to the inn in Auvers-sur-Oise without his art equipment, including the canvas he’d been working on, and that that equipment disappeared overnight, or was never found.

 

I tried to trace the history of Tree Roots to see if I could find out how it surfaced, but I couldn’t find anything definitive. Its earliest appearance in an art exhibition was in 1905, fifteen years after the death of Vincent van Gogh. Where did Tree Roots come from? It’s possible someone collected the painting from the location where van Gogh had painted and eventually profited off it. But it’s also possible van Gogh was working on another painting that day, one that has fallen out of history, or one that we have. It’s impossible to say for sure which painting is van Gogh’s final work.

It’s also impossible to say what lies behind the death of Vincent van Gogh. Suicide seems likely to me still. van Gogh suffered depression, had a history of suicide attempts, and said he’d committed suicide, convincing his doctor and his brother in the process. Moreover, regardless of whether his death occurred as the result of suicide or murder, he seemed to welcome death, suggesting that he was suffering profound unhappiness. According to his brother Theo, his last works were, “The sadness will last forever.”

In conclusion

 also enWe’ll never know the definitive truth of what lies behind the mysterious death of Vincent van Gogh. Nor will we ever know the definitive truth of his mental health condition — was it depression, bipolar disorder, a personality disorder, or caused by something like syphilis? We can only speculate.

Thanks for reading this article. If you enjoyed it, you might also enjoy my article on the mysterious death of Edgar Allan Poe. And here’s a selection of the articles I read to research for this piece:

New York Times article about the Tree Roots painting findings.
A Wikipedia article about the death of Vincent van Gogh.
An article from The Art Newspaper about why the murder story might be a myth.
Plus, I watched the BuzzFeed video on the subject! If you like this article, you should definitely give that video a watch. 

What do you speculate? I’ll stand by my initial suspicions and say that suicide still seems likely to me. What do you think? Let me know in the comments!

hot air balloon representing fantasy

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