On Art

Vincent’s tragic legend restored

A new book revisits the painter’s death and returns the verdict that it was suicide after all

This article is taken from the October 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

In early January 1885, Vincent van Gogh was 31 years old and, after a series of setbacks, had returned to live with his parents in Neunen near Eindhoven. It was from their house that he wrote a letter to his brother Theo, his financial and emotional helpmeet. In it he discussed his death. The possibility of dropping dead, he said, was something “which I should not try to evade if it happened, but which I should not seek expressly”. Five-and-a-half years later, he was indeed dead and he had, seemingly, sought it expressly.

None of those who attended the dying painter ever suspected the shooting was anything other than a suicide attempt

On 27 July 1890, at Auvers-sur-Oise north-west of Paris, while under the care of Paul Gachet, a doctor recommended to him by Camille Pissarro, van Gogh walked to a nearby field and shot himself in the chest with a revolver. The attempt was bungled and it took him two days to die. “He was lonely,” Theo exclaimed as he waited for the end, “and sometimes it was more than he could bear.”

For nearly 120 years there was no doubt that the painter had committed suicide. Van Gogh’s life was marked by depressive episodes and his death followed a series of accelerating crises. His experiment of sharing a studio with Gauguin in Arles in 1888 had reached its terrifying ear-slicing denouement; he had admitted himself to an asylum at Saint-Rémy in Provence only to suffer a major relapse; in May 1890 he moved to an inn at Auvers to be closer to his native north — and to Theo and Doctor Gachet — and embarked on a phase of manic productivity, some 70 canvases painted in the 70 days before his death.

Then, in 2011, two American scholars, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, published an exhaustive biography that claimed Van Gogh had not in fact killed himself but died as the result of an accidental shooting. The person who pulled the trigger, they said, was a 16-year-old boy called René Secrétan, who was holidaying in the town and had started tormenting the artist with practical jokes — once putting a snake in his paint box. The shooting was the result of a prank that went too far.

Naifeh and Smith’s theory helped explain why the shot was to the chest rather than the head and why Van Gogh — who managed to walk back to his auberge — sought medical attention. The authors’ attention to detail added to their plausibility: their book took ten years to write, they employed eight researchers, 18 translators, and had special computer software written so they could search their database of 100,000 digital notecards. This was no-stone-unturned scholarship.

For ten years, Naifeh and Smith’s account became, somewhat grudgingly, the authorised version. Now Martin Bailey, a curator of numerous van Gogh exhibitions and the author of some eight books on the artist, has reset the story. In a new book, Van Gogh’s Finale, he has revisited the painter’s death and returned the verdict that it was suicide after all.

His arguments are numerous. Most persuasive perhaps is the fact that none of those who attended the dying painter ever suspected the shooting was anything other than a suicide attempt. During the 30 hours van Gogh took to die, he was seen by two doctors, the mayor of Auvers, a priest (who refused to allow the funeral of a suicide to take place in his church), the innkeeper, a gendarme, six journalists and his friend Émile Bernard.

More importantly, Theo sat with his brother before the wound turned septic, during which time Vincent was well enough not just to talk but to smoke a pipe. He never mentioned Secrétan or a tussle or accident to anyone.

Nor was this van Gogh’s first attempt at suicide. While in the asylum at Saint-Rémy he had tried to poison himself by ingesting paint and paraffin and had previously written to Theo: “If I was without your friendship I would be sent back without remorse to suicide, and however cowardly I am, I would end up going there.”

No other painter’s biography is so intrinsic to their appeal; his pictures are read first and foremost as revelations of the state of his troubled mind

Indeed, there was an unsettled strain in the family; Cor, his youngest brother, would kill himself in South Africa in 1900 while his sister Wil spent 38 years in an asylum.

Meanwhile, in 1960, a farmer found the revolver Van Gogh used (it was auctioned in 2019 for €162,500) lying near the surface of a field, as if dropped rather than hidden as would more likely have been the case had Secrétan pulled the trigger. Van Gogh was aiming for his heart, Bailey suggests.

Before he died in 1957, Secrétan — 50 years before a hint of suspicion was attached to him — spoke for the only time about van Gogh and said nothing of shooting him but only that the painter had somehow stolen his gun; he also said he had left Auvers days before the incident. Of course he had reasons for not admitting to killing the painter, if that is what had happened, but the bulk of the evidence nevertheless points to suicide rather than an accidental death.

Does it matter how van Gogh died? It does because no other painter’s biography is so intrinsic to their appeal; his pictures are read first and foremost as revelations of the state of his troubled mind. His is a legend of a peintre maudit — cursed painter — and death by prank puts bathos in the place of tragedy and robs the pictures of some of their heartbreak.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover