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New Biography of Van Gogh Suggests a Cold Case Coverup

Last self portrait of Vincent Van Gogh (1889)

Last self portrait of Vincent Van Gogh (1889)

The writers of a new biography of Vincent Van Gogh say the artist may not have committed suicide, but was shot by a teenage boy.

Co-authors Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith offer their new theory in Van Gogh, The Life.

Until now, most historians have believed that Van Gogh, who long suffered from mental illness, shot himself in 1890 near the town of Auvers-sur-Oise in France. Scholars largely agree that the artist stumbled into an inn suffering from a gunshot wound to the stomach and later died. They also agree that, on his deathbed, Van Gogh told his brother that he had deliberately shot himself while painting in a nearby wheat field.

But Naifeh and Smith say there are a number of things about that account that don’t make sense.

People who commit suicide rarely shoot themselves in the stomach because doing so is likely to result in a long, painful death. The gun in this case was never found. Van Gogh’s left-behind painting materials were never found.

"The first thing that comes to mind is, ‘where did he get his gun?’" asked Naifeh. "He had just come out of an insane asylum; people knew he was crazy. Guns were scarce in rural France. Who would have given him a gun? That just didn’t make sense."

Naifeh and Smith say one of two boys who were known to have routinely tormented and teased the eccentric painter, accidentally shot him. The boys were known to play “cowboys” with a gun. All three were known to indulge in alcohol. Perhaps Van Gogh was shot during a drunken teasing session gone bad.

Hear Steven Naifeh explain how he came up with his new theory:

Naifeh and Smith suggest that Van Gogh, who had earlier expressed a desire to die, decided to accept death after the accident. They say he claimed suicide to spare the boys blame for his demise. In other words, Van Gogh covered up his own killing.

Naifeh and Smith base their theory, in part, on reports made by a historian in the 1930’s who said he had heard a rumor in Auvers that Van Gogh had been shot by two boys.

They also site a 1950’s interview with a wealthy French businessman, Rene Secretan, in which he admited having tormented the artist. Secretan said nothing about shooting anyone, but the biographers finger Secretan as Van Gogh’s likely killer.

Naifeh and Smith carry clout in the art world. They are the authors of Jackson Pollock: An American Saga, which won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1991. Despite that, not everyone is accepting their newest work.

“I think this is a new twist on an old story and one that is appealing because it’s new,” said Van Gogh scholar Judy Sund, with the City University of New York.

Sund says there is virtually no actual evidence, just “rumors and hearsay.”

Hear scholar Judy Sund refute Naifeh and Smith's theory:

“If you shot this guy in 1890, why in 1953-54 would you say, ‘I was terrible to him, I tormented him, I got him drunk, I teased him with prostitutes, we called him names, we tried to drive him crazy,' but then say, ‘but I wasn’t in Auver at the time of his death’?” she asked. “Why would you call that kind of attention to yourself if you had actually shot him—it makes absolutely no sense."

Sund challenges most of the theory, which appears only in the appendix of the 976-page book, and whose footnotes are listed on a separate website.

"Naifeh and Smith describe an intense inquiry that followed the event, but there is no documentation of one. They talk about what the police said, but there is no police report. They write about what doctors said, but there is no doctor’s report," she noted.

“And in fact, the local paper reports within a couple of weeks that Van Gogh shot himself with the revolver in the fields. It doesn’t indicate that there is any mystery surrounding the event.”

Naifeh says he is not surprised that the new account of Van Gogh’s death is getting so much attention.

“We knew in doing this that it would in some ways overshadow the 10 years of massive effort that went into this complete retelling of this extraordinary life,” he said. “But it has also gotten a lot of people to read the book and to be able to get to know Vincent as he really was."