How Van Gogh Really Died and How Putting the Kibosh on the Suicide Story is Crucial for Creatives
by Thea Fiore-Bloom, Ph.D.
New research suggests Vincent van Gogh probably didn’t kill himself — but few people know about it.
In 2011 a pair of Harvard-trained, Pulitzer Prize-winning art historians quietly published Van Gogh: The Life.
This doorstop of a book wasn’t read cover to cover by a whole lot of people yet it accomplished 2 things:
1. It pretty much tossed the belief that van Gogh committed suicide, into the same pile where pronouncements like, “the earth is flat” now rest.
2. It got a whole pack of art historians clutching their pearls. (Especially those associated with the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.)
The book’s authors busted several myths.
But let’s focus on just the two I believe impact and affirm creatives today.
Myth 1: Van Gogh was Never Recognized As a Great Artist
Fact 1: Van Gogh’s Star Was Actually on the Rise at the Time of His Death
Believe it or not, van Gogh could be considered to have been on the verge of fame the year he died (1890).
And Naifeh and Smith documented that in 1890 van Gogh was apparently more healthy and optimistic than he had been in years, his doctors declared him healed.
(He had just completed an apparently effective new, homeopathic treatment with the doctor you see Vincent immortalized in the painting below.)
According to the authors, esteemed art critic Albert Aurier published a review declaring van Gogh a genius — while he was still alive.
Van Gogh was aware that Aurier referred to him as: “An intense and fantastic colorist,” whose work was “vigorous, exalted, brutal,” and “unbelievably dazzling, at once entirely realistic and yet almost supernatural.”
The Aurier review prompted invitations for van Gogh to show at prestigious galleries; galleries where his work would have very likely garnered more praise and even sales.
It wasn’t just critics who admired van Gogh.
Vincent did not go unrecognized by fellow artists either.
Despite suffering debilitating bouts of mental illness that admittedly set van Gogh apart from others, the artist was more connected and admired than his myth would have us believe
Why do I think Vincent van Gogh didn’t end his life because of a lack of sales?
Because two Pulitzer prize-winning scholars cast great doubt that van Gogh ended his own life, period.
So how did van Gogh really die?
Myth 2: Van Gogh Absolutely Committed Suicide
Fact 2: Van Gogh Was Most Likely Murdered
Forensic evidence indicates van Gogh was shot from a distance in a field where he was painting.
It may have been an accidental shooting.
Not good news for van Gogh’s family or humanity but it’s the most accurate version of events available at this time.
Van Gogh: The Life’s last chapter and long appendix lay out a convincing argument that a local wild west-loving teen bully and his pals shot and killed Vincent van Gogh.
A bully who had taunted van Gogh verbally and physically since the eccentric genius’s early days in Arles.
Recently a top ballistics expert confirmed van Gogh’s gunshot wound (as detailed in extant records) could not have been a result of a self-inflicted gunshot.
Want more details? Read this 2014 article in Vanity Fair.
If Van Gogh Didn’t Commit Suicide, Why Do We Think He Did?
The chief originator and purveyor of the suicide narrative (according to Naifeh and White) was an artist and critic named Émile Bernard.
The authors document Bernard’s penchant for writing gossip-filled, dramatic letters.
At least one of these letters apparently spread the story that van Gogh took his own life.
But the reason the suicide story is part of our consciousness today may have less to do with Bernard and more to do with Kirk Douglas.
Blame It On Kirk Douglas
Well, Kirk Douglas, Anthony Quinn, novelist Irving Stone, and Oscar-winning director Vincent Minnelli.
Publishers released Irving Stone’s first novel, Lust for Life, in 1934. It became a runaway bestseller.
Stone never pretended his novel was anything other than a work of fiction based on van Gogh’s life.
Hollywood transformed Stone’s book into a Technicolor film in 1956.
The suicide story was then set in the minds of the public like a bug in amber.
“The book and later film “Lust for Life” have, more than anything else, shaped the public perception of Vincent van Gogh.”
— Bernadette Murphy, author of Van Gogh’s Ear.
Why It Matters For Artists That Van Gogh Probably Didn’t Kill Himself
The busting of the myth that van Gogh took his life because he wasn’t appreciated by buyers or critics is important for creatives.
(For my post on how to recover from an overly-harsh art critique go here.)
Because it affirms three things we artists know, that many non-artists don’t:
1. Of course, approval and sales are important, but they are not the real reason we got up to join the dance of art in the first place.
2. Actual artists like you and I know that when we focus only on approval and/or sales, we are left distanced from the source of our creativity itself.
3. If we don’t sell much of our work, we may feel discouraged but many of us keep making mounds of art anyway. (Take my hero Simon Rodia for example, the lone creator of the Watts Towers which soar 10 stories up in the air.)
Why do we carry on anyway?
Because ultimately we make art to soulfully explore life — not to get a pat on the head from others.
So if massive approval and sales alone are not enough for many of us heart-centered artists, what is enough?
Well, van Gogh would answer:
“[…] And then, I have nature and art and poetry, and if that is not enough, what is enough?”
— Vincent van Gogh
Reclaiming Van Gogh for Artists
I argue the evidence that van Gogh did not end his own life benefits artists because it offers artists an opportunity to reclaim Vincent van Gogh, for ourselves.
Not as a tragic victim of circumstance.
Nor as the current highest-priced artist in history.
But as a role model of the importance of making art you love, with love, even if no one ever writes about it or buys a stick of it.
Some authorities claim Van Gogh suffered from ADHD. If you want to learn more about the superpowers and super problems ADHD presents artists with, check out Artists and ADHD: Myths, Realities, True Stories & Resources.
Has van Gogh touched your life or your art in some way?
Why do you think many people have never heard this version of events about van Gogh?
Leave a comment, I want to learn from your take on this.
You also might be interested in a recent NY Times article that documents the role of Van Gogh’s sister-in-law in his rise to art stardom after his death.
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