Vincent van Gogh – Suicide, Homicide or Misadventure?
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. I chose Vincent van Gogh’s “Still Life: Vase With Oleanders” because he’s one of my favorite artists and one whose life, as much as his art, touched my heart.
I’ve had one of those giant coffee-table books of his artwork for years. I read Stone’s “Lust for Life” and saw the movie with Kirk Douglas as Vincent. 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.
The question remains even today: how did van Gogh die?
In an attempt to answer that, I am considering having my characters from Deadly Provenance return to the mystery with the help of state-of-the-art forensics and technology.
I thought I would share a brief “behind-the-scenes” tour of my most popular book to date, Deadly Provenance.
Originally titled Provenance (until a friend thought readers might confuse it with a city in Rhode Island,) Deadly Provenance is about 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’s hard to know where to begin; thus, my plan is to write several blogs. First, there’s the Nazi confiscation of art, how it happened, who was involved, and why? 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?
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 as the heroine she truly was. In the film, Monuments Men, Cate Blanchette played her character, but looked nothing like her as you can see from the photo here.
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.
On another front, the book brings up a hypothetical situation where the 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, I promise.
Confiscated degenerate art stored at Jeu de Paume. Photo: Archives des Musees Nationaux
I often visit the places I write about. During WWII, a great deal of art was stolen 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, 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.
Deadly Provenance gave me a glimpse into the art world and I enjoyed creating a mystery against this backdrop. The book made it to the front page of San Diego Union-Tribune and also to NPR radio.
Unfortunately, Vase With Oleanders is still missing today, as are many precious pieces of art stolen during WWII.
Perhaps you might check in your attic . . . just in case.