The Death of Vincent van Gogh

 

On February 22, 1890, van Gogh suffered a new crisis that was “the starting point for one of the saddest episodes in a life already rife with sad events”. This period lasted until the end of April, during which time he was unable to bring himself to write though he did continue to draw and paint. Hughes writes that from May 1889 to May 1890 he, “had fits of despair and hallucination during which he could not work, and in between them, long clear months in which he could and did, punctuated by extreme visionary ecstasy.”

Although an alternative theory exists that he was shot by someone else, it is widely understood that on 27 July 1890, aged 37, van Gogh shot himself in the chest with a revolver. Where he was when he shot himself is unclear. Ingo Walther writes that “Some think van Gogh shot himself in the wheat field that had engaged his attention as an artist of late; others think he did it at a barn near the inn.” Biographer David Sweetman writes that the bullet was deflected by a rib bone and passed through his chest without doing apparent damage to internal organs, probably stopped by his spine. He was able to walk back to the Auberge Ravoux. He was attended by two physicians, neither with the capability to perform surgery to remove the bullet, who left him alone in his room, smoking his pipe. The following morning (Monday), as soon as he was notified, Theo rushed to be with Vincent, to find him in surprisingly good shape; within hours, however, he began to fail, the result of untreated infection in the wound. Vincent died in the evening, 29 hours after he shot himself. Theo reported his brother's last words as “The sadness will last forever.”

Van Gogh was buried on 30 July in the municipal cemetery of Auvers-sur-Oise at a funeral attended by Theo van Gogh, Andries Bonger, Charles Laval, Lucien Pissarro, Émile Bernard, Julien Tanguy and Dr. Gachet amongst some 20 family and friends, as well as a number of locals. The funeral was described by Émile Bernard in a letter to Albert Aurier. Theo suffered from syphilis and his health declined rapidly after Vincent's death. Weak and unable to come to terms with Vincent's absence, he died six months later, on 25 January, at Den Dolder. The original burial plot was leased for 15 years; the intention was to bury Vincent alongside Theo. Vincent's remains were exhumed on 13 June 1905, in the presence of Jo Bonger, Dr. Gachet and others, and relocated, eventually for Theo to be buried beside him. The precise location of the original grave is no longer known. In 1914, the year she had van Gogh's letters published, Jo Bonger had Theo moved from Utrecht and reburied with Vincent.

While many of Vincent's late paintings are somber, they are essentially optimistic and reflect his desire to return to lucid mental health right up to the time of his death. Yet some of his final works reflect his deepening concerns. Referring to his paintings of wheatfields under troubled skies, he commented in a letter to his brother Theo: “I did not have to go out of my way very much in order to try to express sadness and extreme loneliness.” Nevertheless, he adds in the same paragraph: ” … these canvases will tell you what I cannot say in words, that is, how healthy and invigorating I find the countryside”.

There has been much debate over the years as to the source of van Gogh's illness and its effect on his work. Over 150 psychiatrists have attempted to label its root, with some 30 different diagnoses. Diagnoses include schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, syphilis, poisoning from swallowed paints, temporal lobe epilepsy and acute intermittent porphyria. Any of these could have been the culprit and been aggravated by malnutrition, overwork, insomnia and consumption of alcohol, especially absinthe.

In Van Gogh: the Life, a biography published in 2011, authors Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith argue that van Gogh did not commit suicide. They contend that he was shot accidentally by two boys he knew who had “a malfunctioning gun”. However experts at the Van Gogh Museum remain unconvinced. Prominent skeptics Joe Nickell also was not convinced. Nickell analyzed the questions raised by Naifeh and Smith to support their new theory and found that all can be addressed with a more likely answer. By ignoring the well-known psychological state of Van Gogh (given to self-inflicting harm, self-mortification) and much more reliable testimony (from Adeline Ravoux, daughter of the inn keeper Gustave Ravoux, the owner of the gun), Naifeh and Smith instead make a lot of assumptions on the circumstances around the incident, and misrepresent what Rene Secretan (one of the two boys) said sixty-six years later in 1956, who did not confess shooting Van Gogh. Nickell concludes that their theory is the result of the logical fallacy of 'confirmation bias' – “start the investigation with a supposed answer and work backward to the evidence”.

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