Van Gogh Probably Didn’t Kill Himself: Why This Is Good News For Creatives
by Thea Fiore-Bloom, PhD
In 2011 a pair of Harvard trained, Pulitzer prize-winning art historians published Van Gogh: The Life.
This door stop of a book did two surprising 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 specifically 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).
According to Naifeh and White Smith, 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 galleries where his work most likely would have garnered more praise and even sales.
It wasn’t just critics who admired van Gogh.
Vincent did not go unrecognized by fellow artists either.
Van Gogh was a revered source of inspiration for painter Edvard Munch. He also was an artist the fiercely competitive painter Paul Gauguin considered a worthy rival.
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
How do I know Vincent van Gogh didn’t end his life because of lack of sales?
Because Pulitzer prize-winning scholars showed he didn’t end his own life — period.
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 lays out a convincing argument that it was a local wild west loving teen bully and his pals who shot and killed Vincent van Gogh.
A bully who had taunted van Gogh verbally and physically since the eccentric genius’ early days in Arles.
Recently a top ballistics expert confirmed van Gogh’s gun shot wound (as detailed in extant records) was not self-inflicted.
Want more details? Read this 2014 article in Vanity Fair.
If Van Gogh Didn’t Shoot Himself, Why Do We Think He Did?
The chief originator and purveyor of the suicide narrative (according to Naifeh and White) was artist and critic 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 run away best seller.
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.
But Why Didn’t Van Gogh Tell People He Had Been Shot?
The prevailing theory is van Gogh, being the gracious kind of man he was, wanted to protect the futures of the young bullies who shot him.
It’s hard to imagine the love, equanimity of spirit, and lack of regard for approval that it would take to not correct other’s perception that you shot yourself.
When in fact someone else shot you.
If it were me, everyone in a 1o mile radius would have known, pronto.
But it seems van Gogh was highly evolved emotionally and spiritually.
You can see that in his letters to Theo and other artists. He wrote:
“There is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.”
— Vincent van Gogh
What Love Has To Do With It
No one but van Gogh will ever know for sure what happened that day.
But it seems even in the midst of, or perhaps because of his bouts with mental illness, Van Gogh knew what mattered.
As van Gogh himself said:
“Love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is done well.”
— Vincent van Gogh
Why the Crushing of the “Lack of Approval” Myth Serves Artists
The busting of the myth that van Gogh took his life because he wasn’t appreciated by buyers or critics is important for creatives.
Because it affirms something we artists already know, that many non-artists don’t.
Approval is lovely, but it’s not a creative’s best friend. It comes and goes.
Pursuing approval leaves artists distanced from source.
Approval is not enough to fuel the fire inside a creative.
What is enough? The love of art and life itself.
“[…] And then, I have nature and art and poetry, and if that is not enough, what is enough?” — Van Gogh
How the Crushing of the Suicide Myth Serves 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 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.
For the Love of Vincent
One day after reading a biography of van Gogh then aspiring singer/songwriter Don Maclean passionately scribbled out the lyrics for “Vincent,” on a brown paper bag.
Mclean wrote the song because he wanted to communicate to the kids he sang for at his day job in local schools that Vincent wasn’t “crazy.”
Give it a listen again.
It’s not just an ode to van Gogh.
I think the song acts as a Rumi-like love poem that celebrates art as an act of devotion.
It hits home for us sensitive, eccentric, artists — who like van Gogh— don’t always fit in.
Artists, who like van Gogh, know that when we look back on our life at its end, it will have been creativity itself, and not the approval of that creativity from others — that truly mattered.
This post is dedicated to artist (and inspirer of artists) Val Gilman.