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  • Hia Sinha

The Life and Mysterious Death of Van Gogh

- Hia Sinha

TW- depression, self harm, suicide

‘An artist cannot fail, it is a success to be one’. This quote by Charles Horton Cooley, who originated the looking glass self concept, is one that I wish I could have related to Vincent Van Gogh when he was alive. Van Gogh, a man who was unable to impact the art world when he was living, reportedly having sold just a single painting in his life, has now become a massive inspiration for artists all over the world wishing to pursue their artistic career.

Vincent Van Gogh was born to a Protestant pastor and had five siblings. Even in his youth, he had a reclusive and quiet personality, a characteristic which was to stick throughout his life. Though he was a good student and scored well in school, he made the decision to drop out at the age of 16 and begin an apprenticeship at Goupil and Co., an international art dealership where his uncle was a partner. He would travel with his job, from Hague to London to Paris, until he would be dismissed from his job just short of his 23rd birthday. It was at this point that poverty became a large factor in his life, since his paintings were not of the taste that Parisians at the time were looking for. He would always possess a need to serve humanity, and continued working odd jobs. In 1881, after navigating several dead-end jobs, Vincent Van Gogh ended up at his parent’s doorstep, who were worried about their son’s lack of direction in life. It was at this point in his life where he was also unlucky enough to suffer heartbreak. Skipping a few years until 1887, Vincent Van Gogh met Paul Gaugin at an art exhibition he had organised, and hence the two became immeasurably close. They began to live together in rented rooms in a building called ‘The Yellow House’. They were both great friends and great artists, but polar opposites in most aspects of their personality. Where Van Gogh was needy, sensitive and non-judgmental, Gaugin was harsh, arrogant and judgemental. While Paul Gaugin was a celebrated artist at the time, Van Gogh was nameless. Eventually, these differences began to carve out a chasm in their friendship that would never be fixed. After a huge argument between the two, Vincent Van Gogh would cut off his ear and present it to a prostitute working at a nearby brothel, who would faint upon receiving it. Consequently, this incident, alongside campaigns from his housemates at the Yellow House, would lead to his voluntary arrival at a mental asylum, where he would stay for a year.

The walls of the Saint-Paul Asylum would witness the most famous works of art that Vincent would later on be known for. ‘The Starry Night’, a beautiful mirage of the nightscape, was actually the view from his window at the asylum. ‘Irises’, a simple paint study he did of the flowers growing in front of the asylum, would also gain popularity as it showed the characteristic of a ‘classic Van Gogh painting’- the short brushstrokes and the lighter colours. When he was allowed to leave the hospital grounds, he would work on his ‘Olive Trees’ series and so on. He would even send some of these paintings to his brother, Theo Van Gogh to sell in Paris.

Theo Van Gogh-perhaps he is the individual we are to thank for the wonderful paintings we see today. It was he that supported his brother, financially and mentally, for most of Van Gogh’s life. It was he that encouraged his brother to pursue art when he was young. He was unfailing when it came to helping his brother and even named his child after him- Vincent Willem Van Gogh. His wife ( Johanna Van Gogh-Bonger) also helped Van Gogh wherever possible. Theo Van Gogh sincerely believed that his older brother was a genius. Vincent Van Gogh, after being discharged from the asylum, decided he wanted to live close to his brother and his wife, and moved to Auvers-sur-Oise in France.

I think that provides an appropriate basis on Van Gogh’s life. The two theories about his death-suicide and murder, respectively, have been the objects of much speculation in the recent years. Let us go with the first theory; the one that was taken to be the original cause of his death.

Vincent Van Gogh would often travel to a wheat field to paint. Everyone would know about his whereabouts, and he was frequently accompanied by the rowdy boys of the area. That day was no different, as he set off carrying his paint supplies. His return, however, was notably jarring. He no longer had his paint supplies, his jacket was buttoned fully as he limped up the stairs, passing the landlord and his family. Later, he was discovered in bed with a gaping bullet wound in his abdomen. It was recorded that he kept saying, ‘I wounded myself!’ ‘Do not accuse anyone else’. When police officials asked if his objective was to commit suicide, he responded, ‘I think so’. Later, when it was apparent that he would not survive, he reassured Theo that this was how he wanted to leave earth. He died on 29th July, 1890.

However, this story has a lot of holes. Everyone back then believed that he had committed suicide due to his history of self harm and mental illness. But no one seemed to notice the disconnect. There was no autopsy performed on his body, his painting supplies were later missing and so was the gun he supposedly shot himself with. There were also 5 hours between when he left his home and returned that were unaccounted for. The place where he shot himself was also odd, the bullet having entered the body at an oblique angle. When people shot themselves, the preferred way was to the head. Even if they chose to shoot their hearts, the angle would have been straight. Outsiders also proclaimed that he seemed confused and dazed on his deathbed, and kept emphasizing that he was the one who had inflicted the wound on himself.

The alternate theory, put forth by biographers Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, was that he was shot. When he would go to paint in the wheat fields, as mentioned before, he was always accompanied by a few teenage boys; these boys would always pull pranks on him. The most notable of the group was Rene Secretan, who would most frequently play pranks on him. He was a Buffalo Bill fan, and carried around a .38 caliber pistol on him at all times. The day after Van Gogh was wounded, the Secretan family was not in town; and when they returned, Secretan no longer carried the pistol he was so fond of. This struck most as odd for he would carry his pistol about and often break out into impersonations of Buffalo Bill. We also know that these boys were unafraid of endangering the artist’s life, as they had previously snuck a snake into his painting box. As to why he would want to protect the identity of these boys, Van Gogh had a very close relationship with Rene Secretan’s brother, Gaston Secretan, who also had a keen interest in art and would often observe Van Gogh as he painted. The two boys were also very young, mere teenagers, which could’ve made Van Gogh want to protect their identities.

Well, these are just theories. At the end of the day, what we know for certain is that Vincent Van Gogh was an underrated genius in his lifetime, and his artworks will continue to stand the test of time.

Illustrated by Avani Gupta


The Buzzfeed Unsolved Network

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