“The sadness will last forever.”
These are among the last words spoken by Vincent van Gogh before his death just after 1 a.m. on July 29, 1890. The thirty-seven year old artist was cradled in the arms of his brother, Theo — the two were in Van Gogh’s modest attic room at the Ravoux Inn, Auvers-sur-Oise, France. Cause of death: self-inflicted gunshot wound to the stomach. Or so authorities believed at the time.
How this most extraordinary artist passed away in such forlorn circumstances is still something of a mystery. In all likelihood, he took his own life. Possibly, he did so unintentionally. And there are some who believe he was murdered.
“It is not easier, I am convinced, to make a good picture than it is to find a diamond or a pearl,” Van Gogh once declared. “It means taking trouble and you risk your life on it.”
When he journeyed to Auvers, a village 22 miles north of Paris, in late May, 1890, Van Gogh was trying to save his life, not risk it. Having just been released from the asylum at Saint-Remy, he was going to take up residence near Dr. Paul Gachet, a homeopathic physician who would provide follow-up care to the fragile artist. Gachet had been recommended to Van Gogh by fellow artist Camille Pissarro; other notables who had been attended to by Gachet were Manet, Cezanne, and Renoir.
The picturesque Auvers had become a mini-artist colony, which meant Van Gogh would have a suitable atmosphere in which to paint between medical consultations.
He found quarters in room #5 at the Ravoux Inn. It was on the second floor, illuminated by a small skylight. Van Gogh was also permitted to use a downstairs room which functioned as an artist’s studio. (Sidebar: the building is still there and room 5 is a very popular tourist attraction.)
The stable living arrangements and resplendent countryside was an agreeable change from life at Saint-Remy. Adeline Ravoux, one of the innkeeper’s daughters, later recalled Van Gogh’s disciplined work habits. Following breakfast, easel and paints in hand, pipe in mouth, he was out the door by nine o’clock. Promptly at noon, Van Gogh appeared for lunch. He then resumed painting either in the artist’s studio, or back in the fields. When work was complete, he ate dinner and then retired to his room where he spent time writing letters.
Van Gogh produced more than 70 works of art during his brief stay in Auvers: the paintings were of very high quality, particularly the portraits (Dr. Gachet was the subject of two stunners). His drawings were equally impressive. Art historian Ronald Pickvance called them the “most challenging, most puzzling, most magnificent drawings.”
In a letter to his sister, Willemina, Van Gogh wrote: “What impassions me most — much, much more than all the rest of my metier — is the portrait, the modern portrait…I would like to paint portraits which would appear after a century to people living then as apparitions. By which I mean that I do not endeavor to achieve this by a photographic resemblance, but by means of our impassioned expressions — that is to say, using our knowledge of and our modern taste for color as a means of arriving at the expression and intensification of character.”
His personal life, in contrast to the art, was in disarray.
After initial misgivings about Dr. Gachet, Van Gogh developed a very warm relationship with his physician. “I have found a true friend in Dr. Gachet, something like a brother,” he wrote to his sister. For reasons that are unclear, perhaps because of Van Gogh’s disputatious nature, the two became estranged.
Equally discordant were the terms between Van Gogh and his fellow artist, Paul Gauguin. The two had once been flatmates, but that closeness had dissipated.
Most concerning of all was the strain that had developed with his brother, Theo. Van Gogh had spent his entire art career being supported by his brother — now that Theo had a family, there was some question about the longevity of that financial arrangement.
Such was the fractured state with which Van Gogh set off to work on Sunday, July 27. He came back to the Inn for lunch and, ostensibly, went back to work. Around 9 pm, according to Adeline Ravoux’s account, Van Gogh stumbled upstairs to his room in obvious discomfort. He said he had wounded himself.
Eventually, Dr. Gachet was summoned. He dressed the stomach wound, but realized Van Gogh could not be transported for more invasive treatment. Theo was reached in Paris and arrived the next day.
In a deathbed interview, Van Gogh told investigating police he had shot himself — and added, somewhat peculiarly, “Do not accuse anyone, it is I who wanted to kill myself.”
A distraught Theo Van Gogh died six months after Vincent’s passing. The two are buried side-by-side in Auvers cemetery, a short walk from the Ravoux Inn.
The notion Van Gogh killed himself had been largely accepted as gospel until 2011 when Pulitzer Prize winning authors Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith published Van Gogh: The Life. In a lengthy appendix note, the two jolted established thinking with a theory that Van Gogh had been killed by a rowdy sixteen year old named Rene Secretan. The boy, plus several of his chums, tormented Van Gogh with menacing pranks; the final one was accidentally or intentionally lethal.
Naifeh and White Smith developed an elaborate hypothesis about the incident. 60 Minutes did a two-part segment on the authors: it is available online.
Others, including famed forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden, have called for an exhumation and autopsy of Van Gogh’s remains.
The consensus, however, is Van Gogh shot himself. Wouter van der Veen, the Van Gogh expert whose writings about the artist are essential reading, summed up this position in his book, Attacked at the very Root. Van der Veen wrote: “No serious scholar views the theories of Naifeh and Smith as anything other than unsubstantiated fabrication…What we know of Van Gogh’s suicide does not lend itself to endless debate. He had already tried to kill himself several times. He suffered from numerous chronic diseases and his letters show that he was anything but optimistic. For any other theory to be credited, significant evidence would have to be produced and this has not yet been the case.”