Vincent van Gogh – Suicide, Homicide, or Misadventure?
I recently read an article about researchers discovering the location that artist Vincent van Gogh painted his last work. I decided to re-post an earlier blog I wrote on just that topic.
The research for my book, Deadly Provenance, took me places I never expected to go. To the dark recesses of the brain, its power over the body, and all that could possibly go wrong with that relationship. How did I get there?
For my premise, I needed a painting that was plundered by the Nazis during World War II and never recovered. There were many. I chose Vincent van Gogh’s “Still Life: Vase With Oleanders” because he’s one of my favorite artists and one whose life touched my heart as much as his art.
I’ve had one of those giant coffee-table books of his artwork for years. I wanted to know more and the most comprehensive, well-written and beautifully poignant account I highly recommend is a book by two Pulitzer prize-winning authors: Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, called Van Gogh The Life:
The book is astonishing in its breadth of research from Vincent’s history, family ties, relationships, such as they were. But their conclusions about how Vincent died simply blew me away. Only this is certain. On July 27, 1890, Vincent sustained a gunshot wound to the abdomen. He stumbled back from his painting foray to the Ravoux Inn, his residence, in a town twenty miles north of Paris – Auvers, France. Thirty hours later he was dead.
No forensics was available, no gun was ever found. The bullet was never removed from his body. His painting supplies were never recovered. The location of the shooting was never verified. There were, supposedly, no eye-witnesses. When Vincent was asked by the police if he wanted to commit suicide, his answer was a vague. “Yes, I believe so.” When they reminded him suicide was a crime, he said, “Do not accuse anyone. It is I who wanted to kill myself.”
Why do the authors make a case against suicide? They believe Vincent wanted to die and actually welcomed death. Here are the points they make:
The bullet trajectory was oblique and from further away than Vincent’s arm could reach.
If he were indeed painting in the wheat field, as suggested, it would have been too far and difficult to return to the Inn with a bullet to his gut.
The gun and art equipment were never located.
He left no suicide note and he was a prolific writer.
Rather than go into details here, and there are many convincing ones, I urge you to read the book, at the very least the Appendix, where the authors make their case against suicide.
So who might have shot Vincent, either accidentally or on purpose? There were, apparently, in this little town two or more teenagers who enjoyed tormenting the artist, who, unlike, the fiery and handsome Kirk Douglas, was a rail-thin, emaciated and dirty wretch with a bad temper.
A bit more is known now about Vincent’s personality “disorder” and it is suspected that, with family history and symptoms that prompted bizarre, dramatic behavior, the diagnosis of temporal lobe epilepsy is a viable possibility.
An interesting side note: As I was writing this (rather long, sorry) blog I realized there were stunning similarities between Vincent’s symptoms and a young woman in a book I’ve since read entitled “Brain on Fire – My Month of Madness:” https://www.amazon.com/Brain-Fire-My-Month-Madness/dp/1451621388/ref=sr_1_2?crid=1XIWTN2WM6DHG&dchild=1&keywords=brain+on+fire+paperback&qid=1597014725&sprefix=brain+on+fire%2Caps%2C167&sr=8-2
A mystery to ponder.
When my third book was published, I had originally titled it Provenance until a friend thought readers might confuse it with a city in Rhode Island. Of course it is a mystery and contains several murders, so I decided to call it Deadly Provenance. The story revolves around the confiscation of art during WWII and a missing Van Gogh painting. “Still Life: Vase with Oleanders” is an actual painting by Vincent, which disappeared around 1944, and is, in fact, still missing.
The research on this book provided so many possible avenues to explore, it was hard to know where to begin. First, there was the Nazi confiscation of art: the logistics of stealing, storing and moving millions of pieces of precious artworks. Next, what happened to all that displaced art? How much was recovered and how? How much is still missing? Then there’s my world — the museum world. How have museums been involved? Have they helped or hindered the search for missing pieces of art?
Then there are the players. An important character in the historic part of the book is Rose Valland, a woman whose heroic efforts during the war truly saved a great deal of artwork. She is portrayed in Deadly Provenance as the heroine she truly was. Like Rose, another real character in history is Hans van Meegeren, art forger extraordinaire. Van Meegeren, a Dutch painter, bamboozled the art world in the 40s with a series of false Vermeers. Did he ever forge a van Gogh? In my book he did.
There is the modern story, where the mystery is solved years later. Protagonist, Maggie Thornhill, a digital photographer, must try to identify and authenticate the painting from a photograph. Can it be done? Has it ever been done? What is the science of art authentication today? How are x-rays, infrared and multi-spectral imaging used in scientific analysis? Don’t freak. I won’t get into this too deeply here.
As mentioned in a former blog, I always visit the places I write about. During WWII, a great deal of art was stolen from Jews and other “undesirables” and stored in the Room of Martyrs at the Musée du Jeu de Paume in Paris. The museum is located on the west side of the Tuileries Gardens and is now a museum of Contemporary Art. Visiting was a treat, although the “Room” is no longer there. Most of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works originally housed there are now on display at the Musée d’Orsay, on the banks of the Seine, in an old converted railway station.
And last but central to the storyline, is Vincent van Gogh, the mad genius whose painting is lost, perhaps forever. “Vase with Oleanders” is not typical of his vibrant colors, his wheat fields or his starry nights. But there’s no doubt this is Vincent’s work, even if his signature wasn’t in the lower left corner of the painting. Which it is.
The painting was owned by the Bernheim-Jeunes, a French Jewish family of art collectors. When they realized their art was about to be confiscated by the Nazis, they hid their collection, including the Van Gogh, at a friend’s mansion – The Chateau de Rastignac, near Bordeaux. Unfortunately, in 1944, the Nazis raided and looted the Chateau then burned it to the ground. Was the Van Gogh trundled aboard a Nazi truck and whisked away? Did a soldier steal it? A civilian in the town? Was it burned with the Chateau?
Today, there is still a great deal of interest in this subject and the world of art looting and theft. I’ve spoken about it to a number of different audiences and each time I must update it because new information appears almost weekly in the news. Lost paintings found, fought over by heirs in the courts, and, sometimes, won. Like Maria Altmann and the portrait of her aunt, The Woman in Gold.
History can never remain solely in the past. Past events have a profound influence on the present and the future. I believe they should.