Van Gogh: murder mystery or straightforward suicide?
Specialists from Amsterdam museum refute recent claims that 16-year-old schoolboy killed the artist
By Martin Bailey. News, Issue 248, July-August 2013
Published online: 08 August 2013
Who killed Vincent van Gogh? The artist’s death in France was always assumed to be suicide, until the publication of the definitive biography by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith two years ago. In it, the American writers unveiled a shocking theory: a 16-year-old schoolboy, René Secrétan, had shot Van Gogh, though whether intentionally or accidentally was unclear. The authors argued that the artist, who took two days to die, “welcomed death” and protected Secrétan by claiming that it was suicide.
Now the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has joined the debate, with an article in the July issue of the Burlington Magazine. In a detailed review of the biography, two of its research specialists, Louis van Tilborgh and Teio Meedendorp, insist that Van Gogh’s death was suicide.
In the 960-page book, Van Gogh: the Life, Naifeh and Smith wrote: “For an act of such far-reaching significance and subsequent notoriety, surprisingly little is known about the incident that led to Van Gogh’s death at the age of 37.” All that is certain is that he died two days after sustaining a gunshot wound on 27 July 1890, somewhere in Auvers-sur-Oise.
They set out to investigate, relying heavily on a little-known interview given by Secrétan in 1957, shortly before his death. Secrétan recalled that he had owned a pistol, which he used for shooting squirrels. He and his elder brother, Gaston, knew Van Gogh and used to tease him.
René Secrétan claimed that the artist had stolen the gun from him but revealed nothing more about the shooting. Naifeh and Smith interpreted the interview as a deathbed confession and cited the late art historian John Rewald, who recalled a rumour in Auvers that “young boys shot Vincent accidentally”. According to the story, Van Gogh decided to protect René and Gaston from charges of murder or manslaughter.
Naifeh and Smith focused on the nature of the wound, concluding that the gun was fired “at some distance from the body, not close up”, with the bullet entering “from an unusual, oblique angle (not straight on)”. This evidence came from the doctors who treated Van Gogh: his friend Dr Paul Gachet and a local practitioner, Dr Jean Mazery.
Having examined the claims, Van Tilborgh and Meedendorp remain convinced that Van Gogh’s death was suicide. Their article argues that Secrétan’s interview does not substantiate the murder or manslaughter theory “in the slightest”. All it suggests is that Van Gogh may have somehow obtained the gun from the brothers. They also argue that, although Rewald repeated the rumour about the Secrétans, he “professed no particular belief in its accuracy”.
They cite new material published last year in a book by Alain Rohan (Vincent van Gogh: Aurait-on retrouvé l’arme du suicide?). Dr Gachet recollected that the wound was brown with a purple halo. The purplish ring would have been caused by the bullet’s impact, but the brownish one would have come from powder burns, indicating that the gun had been held close to the chest, under a shirt. This would almost certainly mean that Van Gogh was responsible.
Rohan also produced new evidence about the weapon. In the 1950s, a rusty revolver was discovered buried in a field just behind the Château d’Auvers, where Van Gogh is said to have shot himself. An examination suggested that it had been in the soil for 60 to 80 years. The gun was discovered close to the Chemin des Berthelées, the spot painted by Dr Gachet’s son in 1904, in a picture he entitled Auvers, the area where Vincent committed suicide. The revolver was found just beyond the low farmhouses in the centre of the painting.
The Burlington article also focuses on Van Gogh’s final weeks, arguing against the long-accepted theory that the artist was primarily concerned about losing financial support from his brother Theo. Van Tilborgh and Meedendorp say that Vincent was more concerned that Theo was “shutting him out” of decisions about his life. Theo was having serious problems with his employer, the Boussod Valadon gallery, and was considering setting up his own business. Theo decided to stay with the gallery but did not really consult his brother—making him feel even lonelier.
Van Tilborgh and Meedendorp conclude that suicide was “not an impetuous act, but a decision carefully arrived at”. Although Theo’s behaviour played a role, the key factor was “the painful idea that his obsession with his art had got him nowhere apart from toppling him into a chasm of mental turmoil”.
The two museum scholars looked for evidence of this turmoil in Vincent’s final weeks, pointing out that he had what was effectively a farewell note to Theo in his pocket at the time of the shooting. Although Wheatfield with Crows has traditionally been regarded as his last picture, it was probably made around 10 July, more than two weeks before his death, when he wrote of painting “immense stretches of wheatfields under turbulent skies, and I made a point of trying to express sadness, extreme loneliness”. Van Tilborgh has already suggested that the artist’s last two pictures, both unfinished, were Tree Roots and Farms near Auvers. The Burlington article suggests that the former was a programmatic adieu, expressing the struggle for survival of the elm trees.
Van Gogh said he had shot himself, as did those who were closest to him. Naifeh and Smith argued that the artist was lying; Van Tilborgh and Meedendorp accept it as the truth. Arguably, more attention should be focused on contemporary reports that it was suicide.
Dr Gachet immediately sent a note to Theo saying that Vincent had “wounded himself”. Adeline Ravoux, whose father ran the inn where the artist lodged, later recalled that Van Gogh had told a policeman that “it is I who wanted to kill myself”. Emile Bernard, an artist who attended the funeral, said that Van Gogh had stated just before dying that “his suicide had been absolutely deliberate”—a comment that probably came from Theo or Dr Gachet.
Vincent was closer to Theo than anyone else. It is difficult to believe that he would have lied to his brother about the horrific injury simply to save two taunting teenagers from the attention of the police. After all, suicide was much more painful for Theo to bear, since he felt a degree of responsibility.
Most poignant are Vincent’s own final words: “This is how I wanted to go.” Theo added, in a letter to his wife, Jo: “It took a few moments & then it was over & he found the peace he hadn’t been able to find on earth.”
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