Let’s Paint a New Picture of the Prolific Artist
by Joe Moody
Immediately after Vincent van Gogh’s untimely death, interest in his work surged amid a story that he killed himself. But does a hero commit suicide at the climax?
Sadly, death is often the best thing that can happen to an artist… And it’s tragic when someone as gifted as Vincent leaves Earth with barely a glimpse of how he enhanced art and even modern life itself.
While it’s certain Vincent died from a gunshot at age 37, it’s far from certain who shot him.
The Old Myth says Vincent committed suicide…
Just check out the lyrics to the song, “Starry, Starry Night”:
“And when no hope was left inside
On that starry, starry night
You took your life as lovers often do…” — Don Mclean
As romantic as this is, it’s dead wrong.
Vincent had plenty of hope, as you’ll see…
It’s not like Vincent didn’t have bouts of depression, manic thoughts and even tried to poison himself by eating yellow paint. This was a man who definitely had his ups and downs, and even committed himself to an asylum. But the timing and circumstances regarding the actual bullet that struck him in the abdomen don’t add up to suicide.
Pouring over Vincent’s final letters and first-hand accounts, I see a man not only upbeat during his final days, but someone celebrating his own mental recovery.
Let’s start killing the myth with Vincent’s own words, to his brother, Theo, the month he died:
“I am feeling much calmer than last year, and really the restlessness in my head has greatly quieted down.”
The myth also stated that he painted a final grim work, “Wheat field with Crows,” before he shot himself in that field in July, 1890.
But let’s look at the emotions in the actual letter about painting in the wheat field:
“I myself am quite absorbed in that immense plain with wheat fields up as far as the hills, boundless as the ocean, delicate yellow, delicate soft green, the delicate purple of a tilled and weeded piece of ground … I am in a mood of almost too much calm, just the mood needed for painting this.”
Does that sound like a suicide letter?
And we downgrade the myth further when we realize the painting of the wheat field wasn’t even his last work…
Here’s his final masterpiece, full of vibrant color:
Instead of crows menacing a dark sky (which fit the suicide narrative) we see a colorful rendition of tree roots. What do roots represent? Perhaps symbols of being grounded — stability — and the colors seem to show a man in love with life and nature.
The fact is that Vincent was in the middle of a creative hot streak. He had also just ordered painting supplies from his brother, Theo, who ran an art gallery and was the main supporter of Vincent’s work.
But let’s forget about the paintings and letters for a moment, let’s look at forensic evidence…
Let’s bring in a leading forensic expert, Dr. Di Maio, who gained notoriety as a key witness in the trial of George Zimmerman.
Dr. Di Maio revealed a big problem with the suicide story: mainly that Vincent should have had “powder burns” on the palm of the hand that grasped the gun.
The Doctor said handgun cartridges in 1890 were packed with black powder (smokeless powder was a new invention, only in a few military rifles).
“Close range wounds from black powder are extremely dirty.” Di Maio wrote, “there would have been soot, powder tattooing and searing of the skin around the entrance. These would have been grossly evident. None of this is described [in any of the forensic accounts].”
The Doctor concluded “in all medical probability, the wound incurred by van Gogh was not self-inflicted. In other words, he did not shoot himself.”
I have to thank a fellow Medium story for first cluing me into the missing powder burn…
Also, Doctor Di Maio was brought onto the case by two Pulitzer Prize-winning biographers, Steven Naifeh and Grezgory White Smith. It was their groundbreaking book, Van Gogh: The Life, that first split open the case of Vincent’s death, questioning the suicide myth.
And it is with their revelations that we’ll see if we can finally crack this case…
Who Shot Vincent van Gogh?
While we can never be 100 percent certain who shot the beloved painter, we are nearly certain it wasn’t Vincent himself.
In any death by gunshot, the first thing to look for are possible motives, including those of the person who died. But Vincent was just getting discovered, on fire with creativity, in the most prolific period of his career, having just ordered paints and supplies.
To top it off, no suicide note was ever found, quite surprising for a man who loved writing letters. If anything, he had just written upbeat letters to his brother.
There were teenagers in town who liked to brandish guns, pretending they were pioneers of the Wild West.
They included René Secrétan, a 16-year-old son of a Paris pharmacist whose wealthy family spent the summer in Auvres, France (where Vincent lived).
René’s hero was Wild Bill Cody, after seeing his show in Paris a year earlier. He enjoyed wearing the buckskin costume, cowboy hat and chaps, complete with and a small-caliber pistol that often misfired.
The well-educated young man was born with a silver spoon, which seemed to give him a license to bully. And Vincent was a favorite target.
What was known for sure by locals is that René and his friends liked to torment Vincent.
It’s easy to picture the artist with his wounded ear, lumbering through town with paints and easel. Vincent drank often and mumbled in both French and Dutch, sadly making him an easy target.
The kids put salt in his tea, hot peppers on his painting brush (which he like to suck while pondering his next masterpiece), and teased him while he worked on the paintings we’re in awe of today.
So we have teenage bullies pretending to be cowboys, except they weren’t playing with cap guns. It was 1890 and these were the real thing.
There’s also the often ignored account from a woman who claimed Vincent was far from the wheat fields when he was shot, but was actually on the road that led to René’s house.
Of course, René denied any part in Vincent’s shooting, but he did break a lifetime of silence after seeing the movie Lust for Life (1956). That’s the movie that portrayed Vincent committing suicide. Perhaps it didn’t sit right with René after seeing that, now advanced in years…
René confessed that he led a gang of hooligans who liked to drink and bully the artist. While he never said he shot Vincent, he admitted he liked to play with the malfunctioning pistol he got from the keeper of the Ravoux Inn where Vincent lived.
The Closest Thing to a Smoking Gun…
René left cryptic quotes about the gun itself, saying it was just “fate” the gun fired when it shot Vincent.
“It worked when it wanted,” René joked. “It was just ‘fate’ that it wanted to work the day it shot van Gogh.”
And that’s the closest thing we have to a confession, a bully who liked to play with a malfunctioning gun said it was his gun that shot Vincent, according to biographers.
Suspiciously, René reportedly left Auvers when the incident happened (which was odd as summer was far from over).
It’s worth noting: What’s not conclusive is who actually pulled the trigger, was it René or one of his friends … who knows as it was treated like a toy. René’s confession only identifies the gun that shot Vincent, with an implication that it was accidental.
Furthermore, who would shoot themselves in the stomach to commit suicide? It took 29 hours for Vincent to pass (and he died only because of a lack of antibiotics).
To top it off, the eminent scholar John Rewald went to Auvers in the 1930s to sleuthe the case, talking with locals who still remember the painter’s death. He later confided the prominent rumor he heard: some “young boys” had shot Vincent by accident.
The teenagers perhaps feared getting charged with murder, so Vincent made the selfless act of taking the blame.
These revelations paint a new portrait of Vincent, one who was still full of the light we see beaming from his work.
This new picture is of a man full of hope despite challenges, who still believed in his art and his future, and who died in an act of self-sacrifice, taking the blame for his own oppressors.
Vincent’s brother and his friends were resigned to the story that he clumsily killed himself, somehow without getting a powder burn on his hand. But a more clear look at the actual evidence and people involved paint an entirely new picture.
There’s no more reason to protect the man who may have accidentally shot Vincent, as he’s long passed… But there is every reason to redeem the reputation of Vincent.
Will the World Ever Listen?
Nothing dispels historical myths like art itself, whether in books, movies, music or on canvass.
A long time ago, I began working on a play about Vincent van Gogh, inspired by his paintings and the eloquent letters he wrote to his brother.
I truly admired Vincent, finding him both spiritual yet independent, a visionary ahead of his time.
However, I could never finish the play as the tragic story just didn’t seem right. The plot didn’t make sense, as a hero doesn’t kill himself when he’s finally winning.
I earlier wrote an article revealing how Vincent most likely never cut off his ear. Now, we can let him rest in peace realizing he most likely never took his own life either.
We’ll finish with Vincent’s own words, from a final letter to Theo, showing a man still in love with his work:
“Goodbye for today, I have to go out to work.
In thought embraced by,
Your loving Vincent…”
Perhaps Vincent really was still in love with life, and his work, even as he suffered and died for others. 🌻