By: Megan DeGrand
CONTENT WARNING: mentions of suicide, death and mental health struggles.
When I tell people I like Van Gogh, I sound refined, well versed in the art world, and mature. When I tell people I’m specifically intrigued by his death, I sound strange, macabre, and ever-so-slightly disturbed.
Vincent Van Gogh is arguably one of the most popular and revered artists in history, known for being a tortured genius of sorts. In addition to his influential art style and hundreds of beautiful paintings, he is also widely known for chopping off his own ear, sending it to a sex worker, and ultimately, ending his own life. His mental health struggles were often reflected in his self portraits. It was naturally assumed that his death was suicide, however, in past years, it has been suggested more and more that Van Gogh did not end his own life, but that he died by someone else’s hands.
In 1888, when Van Gogh famously cut his ear off, he was put into a hospital for months before checking into a mental asylum where some of his most famous paintings were derived from. During his time in the mental institution, he painted Irises and Starry Night, two of his most well known works. Van Gogh painted around 150 paintings in his one year at the institution, and his work was finally achieving positive reviews.
It took many years into Van Gogh’s adulthood for him to actually garner an audience for his art. In fact, for the first few years of his art career, no one in Paris would buy his paintings. Years later, around 1890, his style began to take its iconic form of short brush strokes and brighter colors, but would be paired with a state of declining mental health.
In May of 1890, Van Gogh moved to a small town outside Paris called Auver-sur-Oise in hopes of meeting with more artists and being close to family. After just two months in Auver-sur-Oise, Van Gogh would leave his inn with his easel and brushes to paint. Hours later, he would return with none of his belongings and his jacket fully buttoned despite it being July. When the inn-keeper went to check on Vincent, Vincent would reveal a bullet hole beneath his ribs and say, “I wounded myself.”
It is interesting to note that Vincent took all of his supplies out supposedly with premeditated plans to kill himself, and then walked back to his inn anyway, leaving everything behind. Later, when authorities would check the field he had supposedly been painting in, his easel and paints would be nowhere to be found.
The placement of the bullet wound is also curious, as shooting oneself through the chest is a more unconventional method. If Vincent had used the gun himself, the bullet would have gone through his chest, but with no exit wound it seemed there would have been considerable distance between Van Gogh and the gun.
Authorities were quickly called, along with Van Gogh’s brother Theo. Officers questioned Vincent about the circumstances and his motive. Vincent reportedly responded saying, “I wounded myself in the fields. I shot myself with a revolver there.” Then, he adamantly followed up with, “Do not accuse anyone… it is I who wanted to kill myself.”
In Van Gogh telling officers not to accuse anyone already plants the seed that maybe there was foul play, or that Van Gogh was nervous about the officers finding something more sinister and, with his history of mental instability, killing himself would seem most feasible next to murder.
From the time Vincent left the inn to the time he returned, five hours had passed. What had been assumed was that Vincent missed his heart and passed out. When he came to later, he could not find the gun from dropping it and limped back to the inn. However, it is hard to believe Vincent could have dropped the gun so far from himself that no one could find it, and if he had passed out after shooting himself, there would have been much more blood on his clothing coming back.
There are even more inconsistencies about Vincent’s motive of wanting to kill himself. A letter from Vincent had been found in his pocket, indicating he had future plans in life, so why end it now? He also had experience in hunting and carried a gun for protection. He knew his way around a gun, so it's intriguing he fumbled this one shot considering his experience.
Other personal accounts from Auvers-sur-Oise suggest his death was not suicide either. A farmer named Rene Secrétan had apparently been seen around the field Vincent often painted in on the day of his death, and was known to own a gun. Rene had two sons who interacted with Vincent casually. Usually the boys would pull pranks on Vincent, and Vincent would tolerate the behavior since he was so lonely. It is thought Rene may have held a grudge against Vincent and shot him, but Vincent wanting to protect the boys for keeping him company from negative attention, claimed he wanted to kill himself.
Vincent Van Gogh went through many struggles throughout his life, and his death should not be taken lightly. While he had so many periods of darkness, he allowed for some beauty to grow from them. This theory is not to invalidate his struggle with mental health or anyone else’s, but to further unpack this great loss to art and the world at large.
Now, do I personally believe Van Gogh was killed by someone else? I can’t be sure, but I definitely think this subject is fascinating when looking at the small details of this situation, it definitely takes a different form. I feel the “tortured artist” archetype has been pushed a lot specifically with historical artists, and while art can often come from a place of pain, it doesn’t have to. Either way, Vincent Van Gogh was a revolutionary artist, who knows what more he could have painted had he more time.