The Mystery of Vincent van Gogh’s Death: A Historical Investigation

Curious about how Vincent van Gogh died and who might be responsible? Questions about suicide, murder, or something else linger. These mysteries have intrigued people for over a century, and the answers aren’t as simple as you’d think.

Vincent van Gogh’s death is a puzzling event in art history, sparking interest and curiosity in the public and academic circles. It inspired many books, documentaries, and films. Despite extensive research, the mystery remains unsolved. Questions and doubts surround the circumstances of van Gogh’s demise, leading to various theories and speculations.

In this blog post, we’ll explore clues, theories, and controversies surrounding van Gogh’s death. We’ll delve into the widely accepted theory that van Gogh committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest in a wheat field near Auvers-sur-Oise on July 27, 1890. Alternative theories propose that someone else caused his death, like a teenage boy playing with a gun or a jealous lover with a motive.

This aims to deepen your understanding of Vincent van Gogh’s life, legacy, and the mystery surrounding his death. It encourages you to develop critical thinking and analytical skills, appreciating the complexity of historical mysteries.

How Did van Gogh Die?

The official account of van Gogh’s death states that on July 27, 1890, he shot himself in the chest with a borrowed revolver in a wheat field near Auvers-sur-Oise. He then walked back to the inn where he stayed and passed away two days later in the presence of his brother, Theo. The innkeeper, Adeline Ravoux, claimed van Gogh confessed to attempting suicide. This version is supported by van Gogh’s prior suicidal thoughts and his access to the revolver from his friend and doctor, Paul Gachet.

The Mystery of Vincent van Gogh's Death: A Historical Investigation
Vincent van Gogh, Sorrowing old man (At Eternity’s Gate), licensed under CC BY 2.0

However, this narrative faces challenges and inconsistencies. Why did van Gogh choose to shoot his chest instead of a more lethal spot? Why in a public place? How did he manage to walk back to the inn despite severe injuries? Where did he obtain the revolver, and what happened to it afterward? Why no suicide note or explanation? And why express a desire to live on his deathbed?

These questions cast doubt on the suicide theory, leading to alternative explanations:

  • Van Gogh might have been accidentally shot by someone else (like a hunter), and he covered up for them.
  • He could have been murdered by someone with a grudge, and he protected their identity out of loyalty.
  • Involved in a duel or brawl, he might have been shot in self-defense or retaliation, keeping it secret out of shame.
  • Van Gogh might have been shot during a robbery, and he didn’t report it out of embarrassment or despair.

While these theories lack evidence or witnesses and don’t consider van Gogh’s mental state, a theory gaining attention suggests he was shot by a teenage boy. This boy, playing with a gun or taunting the artist, was protected by van Gogh from facing consequences.

Despite these theories, the suicide theory remains widely accepted by scholars, considering van Gogh’s mental state and behavior as indicative of self-harm tendencies. Yet, a theory involving a teenage boy has gained credibility, challenging the suicide explanation.

Proposed in 2011 by American writers Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith in their biography Van Gogh: The Life, this theory challenges the suicide narrative. According to Naifeh and Smith, new evidence suggests a different scenario: 16-year-old René Secrétan, a summer visitor in Auvers-sur-Oise, shot van Gogh.

Secrétan, fascinated by the Wild West, possessed a malfunctioning revolver acquired from a local fair. He, along with friends, often harassed van Gogh, who was considered an eccentric outsider. They engaged in pranks, like putting a snake in his paint box or dressing up as cowboys and Indians to scare him. Secrétan, particularly fixated on van Gogh, would mimic and follow him.

On the day of the shooting, Naifeh and Smith propose that Secrétan accidentally or intentionally shot van Gogh while he painted in the wheat field. Clues supporting their theory include:

  • The bullet found in van Gogh’s chest matched Secrétan’s revolver.
  • The angle and distance of the wound suggested a lower and closer position, not consistent with self-infliction.
  • Lack of gunpowder or burns on van Gogh’s skin implied the shot wasn’t at close range.
  • The shooting location and time coincided with where Secrétan and friends played with the gun.
  • Secrétan’s admission in a 1956 interview that he tormented van Gogh and fired the revolver near the artist.
  • Van Gogh’s behavior and statements, not accusing anyone and expressing a desire not to die.

Naifeh and Smith argue that, known for kindness, van Gogh chose to protect Secrétan, taking blame for his own death. They believe van Gogh sympathized with the boy, not wanting to ruin his life or cause trouble for his family. In their view, van Gogh, disillusioned and depressed, saw the shooting as an opportunity to end his suffering, leaving behind a legacy of martyrdom and sacrifice.

The Controversy Surrounding van Gogh’s Death

Naifeh and Smith’s theory has caused a lot of talk and disagreement among the public and academics. Some people applaud their research as a groundbreaking investigation, shedding new light on a historical mystery and revealing a more complex side of van Gogh. Others criticize it as sensationalist fiction, distorting facts and undermining van Gogh’s credibility.

Some key points in favor of their theory include:

  • They conducted extensive and meticulous research, examining thousands of documents, letters, and records, and interviewing numerous experts, witnesses, and descendants.
  • They consulted forensic specialists, ballistics experts, and medical professionals, who confirmed the plausibility of their theory.

On the flip side, arguments against their theory are:

  • It relies on selective and biased interpretation, ignoring contradictory evidence and relying on questionable sources.
  • Assumptions and leaps of logic are made without solid proof, contradicting established facts.

Supporters also argue:

  • The theory is consistent and coherent, explaining anomalies in the suicide theory and considering van Gogh’s historical and psychological context.
  • A compelling narrative challenges readers to rethink their views on van Gogh.

Opponents counter:

  • The theory is inconsistent and contradictory, introducing new problems and ignoring historical and psychological evidence.
  • The narrative is misleading, exploiting reader curiosity and distorting their understanding of van Gogh.

Dissecting the Suicide Theory

Despite facing controversy and criticism, the widely accepted explanation for van Gogh’s death remains the suicide theory. This endorsement is due to substantial evidence and arguments that support and outweigh alternative theories. Key supporting points include:

  • Theo van Gogh’s testimony, as Vincent’s closest person, who believed his brother had committed suicide. Theo, present during Vincent’s final moments, heard the last words: “La tristesse durera toujours” (The sadness will last forever). In a letter to his sister, Theo described Vincent’s act as “done in a moment of madness.”
  • Paul Gachet’s testimony, Vincent’s friend and doctor, who treated his wound and confirmed his death. Gachet believed Vincent had taken his own life and wrote to Theo that Vincent had “put an end to his life with a revolver.”
  • Adeline Ravoux’s testimony, the innkeeper’s daughter where Vincent stayed, who witnessed his return after the shooting. Ravoux claimed Vincent confessed to her, saying: “I wanted to kill myself.”
  • Evidence of Vincent’s mental health, indicating severe depression, anxiety, and psychosis, with a history of self-harm and suicide attempts.
  • Evidence from Vincent’s artistic expression, reflecting despair and suicidal tendencies in his paintings, especially the use of dark colors and gloomy themes.
  • Evidence from Vincent’s personal and professional situation, with financial troubles, lack of recognition, strained relationships, unfulfilled aspirations, and dependence on his brother.

These reasons make the suicide theory more convincing, explaining why many believe van Gogh took his own life. However, this doesn’t imply the theory is flawless or definitive, and the mystery of van Gogh’s death remains open for further investigation.

The Murder Hypothesis: Fact or Fiction?

The idea that Vincent van Gogh didn’t take his own life isn’t just limited to the theory involving a teenage boy. Other theories also suggest someone else caused his death. Some of these ideas include:

  • Van Gogh being killed by a jealous lover hurt by rejection or infidelity. This theory speculates he had a romantic relationship with women in Auvers-sur-Oise, like Marguerite Gachet or Adeline Ravoux. It’s supported by his history of troubled love affairs, like with his cousin Kee Vos or the landlord’s daughter Eugénie Loyer.
  • The theory that a rival artist, threatened by his talent or fame, killed van Gogh. This assumes he made enemies among artists in Auvers-sur-Oise, like Paul Gauguin or Camille Pissarro. Evidence includes van Gogh’s conflictive personality and clashes with artists, like the razor threat against Gauguin.
  • The theory that a local bully, annoyed by van Gogh’s eccentric behavior, killed him. Based on rumors that villagers harassed him, thinking him mad. Witnesses claim to have seen him insulted or beaten by locals like schoolteacher Anton Hirschig or farmer Constantijn Peeters.

However, these theories have flaws and doubts, facing similar problems as Naifeh and Smith’s theory. They mostly rely on speculation, hearsay, or circumstantial evidence, lacking solid proof or witnesses. They overlook evidence supporting the suicide theory and ignore van Gogh’s mental health, personality, and behavior that suggest he was capable of ending his own life. As a result, most scholars and experts do not widely accept these theories and still find the suicide theory the most plausible and consistent explanation.

Nevertheless, this doesn’t dismiss the murder theories or prove the suicide theory flawless. The mystery of van Gogh’s death remains open, encouraging further investigation and exploration.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the mystery surrounding Vincent van Gogh’s death persists, with conflicting theories about suicide or murder. Approaching this enigma with an open mind is crucial, considering varied perspectives. Regardless of the circumstances, it’s vital to appreciate van Gogh’s significant contributions to art and culture. His rich body of work, expressing the inexpressible, continues to inspire and captivate audiences globally, ensuring that his legacy endures beyond the uncertainty of his final moments.

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