There’s an odd debate going on between scholars at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and Van Gogh biographers Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith about whether Van Gogh’s death was a suicide or a murder.
All that is known for sure is that the artist died at age 37 two days after sustaining a gunshot wound in the chest in a field more than a mile from his studio and that he dragged himself back there to die.
Two years ago, the biographers contended in their 950-page book Van Gogh:?the Life that the artist didn’t take his own life, that a 16-year-old, Rene Secrétan, known for taunting him, did, and that Van Gogh didn’t accuse the boy in order to protect him from prosecution. Their evidence included the boy’s deathbed admission in 1957 that the bullet came from his gun, which he said that Van Gogh stole from him. And they wondered why anyone would shoot himself so far from home and crawl back to die.
Last month, Van Gogh Museum scholars argued in Burlington Magazine that the death was the result of a self-inflicted wound. What’s more, they said, the suicide was “not an impetuous act, but a decision carefully arrived at.” One of the things they based this on was what Van Gogh’s brother and confidant Theo wrote to his wife about the artist’s last words: “This is how I wanted to go.” Theo added, “He found the peace he hadn’t been able to find on earth.”
Both sides of the argument seem reasonable; although it seems odd that a museum dedicated to one artist would insist that he died by his own hand – clearly presupposing the long-held view that the artist was crazed.
One may wonder if a crazed death-wishing artist is a bigger draw at the Van Gogh Museum than one who was an innocent victim of a crime.
This isn't to say that he wasn’t crazed, but only to raise the question, was he crazed enough to kill himself?
Certainly the 1956 film bio “Lust for Life” made him out to be crazed. Kirk Douglas played him like a raving-lunatic attacking his easel with the same ferocity he used to portray his strike against the Germans in “Paths of Glory.”
There are reasons to believe that Van Gogh got a bad rap in that movie. I’m thinking of his roommate, Paul Gauguin who wrote, "I don't admire the painting," referring to Van Gogh's, "but I admire the man. He's so confident, so calm. I'm so uncertain, so uneasy."
Did you get that – Van Gogh as “calm”? And Gauguin lived with the guy!
Another possible proof of Van Gogh's sanity was his output – more than 2000 oil paintings, 100 watercolors and 200 letters to fellow artists and his brother – in French and English, as well as Dutch. As everyone knows, when depression hits or even a funk, it's hard to get any work done. Van Gogh's exceptional production level suggests mental health, not to mention exceptional discipline.
In fact, he considered himself a lucky man. As he said in a letter to Theo: "In my opinion, I am rich – because I have found in my work something which I can devote myself to heart and soul, and which inspires me and gives meaning to my life."
Unaccountably, though, the Van Gogh museum scholars say, “His obsession with his art had got him nowhere apart from toppling him into a chasm of mental turmoil.”
It comes down to taking the word of Van Gogh Museum scholars or Van Gogh. I vote for the artist. How about you?