Painter Zhao Xiaoyong works on a portrait of Van Gogh in his gallery at Dafen Oil Painting Village in Shenzhen on April 25, 2011.
Painter Zhao Xiaoyong works on a portrait of Van Gogh in his gallery at Dafen Oil Painting Village in Shenzhen on April 25, 2011.

Van Gogh suicide ‘a myth’

By Daniel Bates Time of article published Oct 17, 2011

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The Vincent van Gogh story is that the poverty-stricken and unappreciated artist took his own life with a shot to the chest.

But, more than a century on, two American writers have cast doubt on his suicide and instead claim he was shot dead by a teenager.

Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith claim that Van Gogh was fatally wounded by a friend’s teenage brother who enjoyed teasing and provoking the mentally ill artist.

During a confrontation in the French town of Auvers-sur-Oise in 1890, the boy somehow opened fire with a gun.

They also outline another theory, that Van Gogh was shot by two local boys who were playing with a malfunctioning pistol.

Naifeh and Smith, who won a Pulitzer Prize for their biography of US artist Jackson Pollock, spent ten years researching their book, which will be released in Britain tomorrow.

In Van Gogh: The Life, they claim that the Dutch impressionist “knew nothing about guns” and that “no gun was ever found” at the scene or anywhere else.

They conclude that Van Gogh had a “history of violent outbursts” and suggest a disagreement of some kind may have been his undoing.

Although Van Gogh’s paintings are now among the world’s most expensive works of arts, exchanging hands for close to £70 million, during his life the artist sold only one painting and lived in abject poverty suffering from mental illness. At one stage he was committed to an asylum.

The infamous episode of how he cut off his ear after a row with painter Paul Gauguin and presented it to a prostitute has already been challenged by two German art historians, who argue that Gauguin sliced it off with his sword during a fight and the two artists agreed to hush up the truth.

According to the official version of his death, Van Gogh was only 37 when he went into a field in Auvers-sur-Oise on the evening of July 27, 1890, and shot himself in the chest with a revolver.

He then apparently managed to stagger back to a nearby inn and died two days later in the arms of his brother Theo - for ever cementing his reputation as a troubled genius.

But in their account, Naifeh and Smith claim that there is strong evidence against this, as Van Gogh left no suicide note and the bullet which killed him entered his body “from an unusual, oblique angle - not straight on as one would expect in a suicide”.

The writers, who were granted access to thousands of family letters and had the co-operation of the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, have concluded that a row with a neighbour’s son was the real reason why he was shot, and that as he welcomed his own death he saw no reason to blame anybody else.

Van Gogh also only offered “hesitant, half-hearted, and oddly hedged” confessions of his suicide attempt, which they do not find convincing.

How somebody who had been fatally shot was able to walk more than a mile to the inn is an additional mystery, they write.

Some have speculated that Van Gogh’s growing insanity may have been caused by swallowing or inhaling chemicals from his paints, from his addiction to the potent alcoholic drink absinthe, or as a result of the sexually transmitted diseases he had picked up from his relationships with prostitutes. - Daily Mail

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