How did Vincent van Gogh really die?

By Theresa Mallinson 17 October 2011

Until now, it had been widely assumed that 19th century Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh had killed himself, owing to psychological problems. A new biography blows that theory out of the water, and suggests someone else may have fired the fatal shot. By THERESA MALLINSON.

Ask the average person what they know about Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh and the phrases: “that sunflower painting”; “he cut off own his ear”; and “committed suicide” will probably arise in the ensuing conversation. Well, van Gogh did paint the sunflowers, but art historians are far from certain about his self-mutilating tendencies – or whether he actually committed suicide.

Back in 2009, academics Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans published a book called: “Van Gogh’s Ear: Paul Gaugain and the hint of silence”, suggesting that Gaugain chopped off his friend’s ear in a sword fight (whether intentionally or not a is matter for further speculation). And now a new book, by another set of art historians, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, claims that Van Gogh didn’t kill himself either.

In “Van Gogh: The Life” they contend that he was shot by a third party. Given Van Gogh’s unstable mental history, they argue that he would’ve had difficulty obtaining a gun; furthermore, as quoted in the New York Times, they claim that the bullet entered his abdomen “from an unusual, oblique angle – not straight on as one would expect in a suicide”.

A CBS interview with the authors was set to air on Sunday night, which should reveal more details, as will the book itself when it is published on Monday. What we can say for sure is that Van Gogh’s reputation for being crazy won’t be damaged by these revelations – after all, what normal person would be shot by someone else in an accident and then claim suicide? DM


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