Perhaps no name in the world of art is more universally recognized than that of the painter Vincent van Gogh.
It appears that he sold only three paintings during his lifetime. But in the years following his death in 1890 at age thirty-seven, his work achieved world-wide accolades among art critics and buyers. In 1987, his Irises sold for a record $53.9 million.
Throughout his short life, he experienced obstacle after obstacle as he pursued his two passions – Christian ministry and art. Rejecting the rigid conventions of both the church and art establishments, van Gogh followed his own muse – never achieving success of any kind.
Held in low regard by even his parents, his work was seen by them as worthless. Of the numerous paintings which he entrusted to his mother, some were actually thrown out in the trash.
Financially supported by his younger brother Theo in his few last years, he lived in near poverty – a shabbily dressed outcast living on bread and coffee. His many letters to Theo reveal the artist’s faith, his longing for love and his desire for artistic recognition. In May 1890, wracked by failing health, mental torment and breakdowns, he found himself in Auvers, twenty miles north of Paris, where he would die months later of a gunshot wound.
Even to those who have little or no interest in art, awareness of his name and a few of the events of his life may be familiar.
The story goes something like this: Van Gogh was a possessed madman, cut off his ear and committed suicide. This narrative found full acceptance shortly after his death and to this day has been generally acknowledged as historically accurate.
Yet, very possibly, it may be far from true. Any reasonable historical investigation of his life presents a different narrative.
Van Gogh contracted venereal disease as a young man. One of the possible effects of the mercury used in treating van Gogh was medically induced madness. Add to this the fact that the painter had a habit of twirling his paint brushes in his mouth to moisten them. It seems likely that lead-based paints could have also poisoned him and caused the erratic behavior and hallucinations which would eventually lead to a medical diagnoses of “mental alienation.”
In regard to the well-known story of van Gogh cutting off his ear, nothing can be determined with any accuracy about the circumstances which led to the slicing – not cutting off – of his ear. This event could have easily been the result of one of the violent seizures he experienced.
In 2011, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith published an extensively researched and detailed, nine-hundred page biography, Vincent van Gogh: The Life. It contains a 16-page appendix addressing the shooting on July 27, 1890, which resulted in his death two days later.
They state, “surprisingly little is known about the incident that led to Vincent van Gogh’s death.” Their research shows that there is, in fact, little evidence to support his suicide, but more to suggest an accidental shooting to his upper abdomen which occurred at a farm on the outskirts of Auvers.
Van Gogh knew nothing about guns and did not own one. The only gun which appears in the historical record of his final days is one owned by the landlord of the Ravoux Inn where Vincent stayed in Auvers. It is likely this gun that killed him, but not by his own hand.
Two teenaged sons of a wealthy Parisian pharmacist had been sent to vacation at the family villa in the town. The older, 18-year-old Gaston Secretan, admired Vincent and aspired to become an artist. He followed the artist around as he painted outdoors – “plein air.”
The younger brother, 16-year-old Rene, also followed the painter – but not due to admiration. Openly contemptuous of van Gogh, Rene joined in with the others of the rural village, relentlessly and cruelly taunting the odd, lonely outsider.
Knowing of his habit of licking his brushes, this younger brother would prank the painter by lacing his brushes with chilli pepper. He heavily dosed his coffee with salt and put snakes in Vincent’s paint-box. Rene dressed in a Western frontier costume which his father had bought for him – stories of the American West were then popular in Europe – and the rowdy Rene often borrowed the innkeeper’s pistol as he played frontiersman and shot at rabbits and squirrels.
The day the shooting occurred, the artist had gone out to paint. Hours later, a wounded van Gogh hobbled back to his room at the inn. As he lay dying, he instructed his brother Theo, “Blame no one for this” – an odd remark in itself. The two doctors who examined van Gogh concluded that the bullet, which remained near his spine, was shot from a distance and at an odd angle.
However Vincent placed the blame on no one but himself, and, due to his few hesitant, but self-incriminating statements, no further investigation was done of what was officially ruled a self-inflicted gunshot wound. No trace of the paint supplies which Vincent had taken with him or any gun were ever found.
In 1956, Rene Secretain, then 82-years old, was interviewed about his memories of the now acclaimed artist. Oddly, Secretan, who was only a year away from his own death, had himself sought out journalist Victor Doiteau for the interview, having read an article about Lust for Life, the Hollywood film on the life of van Gogh. His recollections of that summer 66-years earlier, and his torment of Vincent, can easily be seen more as a confession than a reminiscing. They included a cryptic statement about the gun that he used that summer. It was “an old .380 caliber pistol that was falling apart and worked only erratically.” It would fire unexpectedly.
Did Vincent van Gogh die as the result of a prank gone wrong?
In their appendix, Naifeh and Smith present a full treatment of the mysterious circumstances of the shooting. And their presentation of the actual historic research would lead any reasonable person to agree that there is, at the very least, doubt in regards to a ruling of suicide. But the world’s narrative persists more than a century following van Gogh’s death.
There is an unfortunate, but perhaps true, saying that “misery loves company.” It seems also true that fallen man loves fallen company. And to many of the world, the story of a “possessed madman” who commits suicide is far more attractive than that of a poor lonely artist – poisoned and a shooting victim.
The eternal redemption of Vincent van Gogh can only be accomplished by our Redeemer. At the same time, the redemption of the narrative of his life can and should be done by those of faith interested in his life and work.
The life and death of this passionate man, who professed faith, may yet be re-examined. Perhaps we may yet see a new narrative – one which may be unappealing to those of the world, but one which brings some edification among those who know of God’s grace to the poor in spirit, the meek and the merciful, such as Vincent van Gogh.