The authors of a new biography of Vincent van Gogh have a radical theory.
In “Van Gogh: The Life,” Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith question whether the great artist really killed himself, as has always been believed. Instead, they suggest that perhaps he was the victim of a shooting accident.
How seriously should we take this suggestion? It has more plausibility than the idea, proposed a while back, that Van Gogh’s ear mutilation was caused by Gauguin attacking him with a fencing foil. Naifeh and Smith point to genuine anomalies in the evidence and cast some doubt on the standard version of Van Gogh’s death. Still, there are reasons to be skeptical.
The accepted account of Vincent’s death, until now, has been that of his friend Emile Bernard soon after the event. He wrote that on July 27, 1890, the painter walked into the countryside outside Auvers, in northern France. He leaned his easel against a haystack, and shot himself with a revolver.
The bullet went through his upper abdomen without hitting his heart, and Van Gogh staggered back to the inn where he was staying. His landlord, Gustave Ravoux, found Van Gogh lying in bed with his face turned to the wall. He died in the early hours of July 29. Almost his last words to his brother Theo were, “This is how I wanted to go.”
In an appendix to their book, Naifeh and Smith raise a number of valid objections to the received version. The majority of gun-shot suicides aim for the head not the heart. There was no clear evidence as to where Van Gogh was shot or how he got hold of a gun. Most oddly, both his painting equipment and the weapon vanished, almost as if someone had removed the evidence.
They also have a candidate for the guilty party: Rene Secretan. As teenagers, Rene and his brother Gaston had known Van Gogh during his brief stay in Auvers. Gaston liked to talk to him about art, 16-year-old Rene liked to tease him (putting chili on the dry paint of his brush for example, which he sucked while at work). And he had a little pistol.
An art historian had picked up rumors in Auvers that some boys had shot the artist accidentally. Interviewed in old age, Rene said that Van Gogh had stolen his old gun, which “went off when it felt like it,” but not that he had been involved in the shooting. As the authors suggest, in a meeting between a possibly drunk and angry artist and an adolescent with an ancient firearm, anything could have happened.
True. The trouble is that anything could have happened with Van Gogh at any time. He was mentally unstable, and acted in an unorthodox manner even by the standards of the unbalanced. Mutilating his ear was a highly unusual act. One wouldn’t expect him to shoot himself in a standard fashion.
Naifeh and Smith’s reconstruction implies a cover up that involved Van Gogh himself. That’s possible. He seems to have wanted to die. It’s also possible that Vincent himself couldn’t remember what had occurred, as he often didn’t after his -- increasingly severe -- attacks of derangement.
Some of his reported death-bed remarks are ambiguous: “Do not accuse anyone; it is I who wanted to kill myself.” That could hint that he was shielding someone, perhaps it was Ravoux, for stupidly providing a pistol. Ravoux’s daughter, again many years after the event, said her father had lent it to the painter.
The most telling oddity is that missing gun. Any detective-story reader would wonder about a suicide without a weapon. Still, the best verdict on the new hypothesis is the Scottish one of “not proven.” It’s conceivable that Secretan was involved in some way. Yet it’s also plausible that this man who already had injured himself in a strange and potentially life-threatening fashion simply did it again.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News, and author of “The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles.” His most recent book is “A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney.” The opinions expressed are his own.)