On the evening of July 27, 1890, Vincent van Gogh stumbled back to his tiny room at the Auberge Ravoux in Auvers-sur-Oise, just north of Paris. When the innkeeper looked in on the artist, alarmed by his groans, he found van Gogh doubled over in pain from a gunshot wound to the chest. The innkeeper, Ravoux, summoned the village doctor and van Gogh requested that his personal doctor, Paul-Ferdinand Gachet, come as well.
After examining the patient, the doctors concurred that it was not possible to remove the bullet. So at van Gogh's request, Gachet filled a pipe, lit it and placed it in the artist's mouth. Van Gogh puffed quietly, while the doctor sat attentively at his side. The two had developed a warm friendship during the ten weeks van Gogh had been in Auvers.
Van Gogh's brother Theo had arranged for Gachet, who specialized in homeopathy and nervous disorders, to care for him during his recovery after van Gogh moved to Auvers on May 20, 1890 from the asylum in Saint-Rémy. The painter Camille Pissaro had recommended Gachet to Theo because of the doctor's affinity for artists. Gachet's circle of friends included Cézanne, Pissarro and other Impressionist painters, and he avidly collected art. Gachet also enjoyed painting and engraving, signing his works with the name Paul van Ryssel.
With his red hair, Gachet also possessed an uncanny resemblance to van Gogh, which only fostered a stronger bond between the two men. Van Gogh noted to his youngest sister, Wilhelmina, "I have found a true friend in Dr. Gachet, something like another brother, so much do we resemble each other physically and also mentally."
Tempering the rapport, though, was van Gogh's observation that the "eccentric" doctor suffered from "nervous trouble" just as serious as the artist's. But despite these initial reservations, van Gogh soon began visiting Gachet's home regularly, sharing multi-course meals and painting portraits of the doctor and his daughter. One of these portraits, titled the Portrait of Dr. Gachet, is among van Gogh's most famous paintings and emphasizes the physician's melancholic nature more than his medical expertise. Describing the portrait to Gauguin, van Gogh wrote the doctor possessed "the heartbroken expression of our time."
The artist's productivity soared in his new surroundings. Indeed, some catalogues have attributed some 70 works to van Gogh during his time in Auvers. As he wrote to Theo and his sister-in-law, Jo, he found Auvers to be "profoundly beautiful, it is the real country, characteristic and picturesque."
But by July, intimations of trouble crept into his correspondence and canvasses. Describing in a letter to Theo several scenes of wheat fields "under troubled skies" that he had recently painted, van Gogh commented that it didn't take much effort "to express sadness and extreme loneliness." Some of his anxiety might have been fed by recent news that Theo, who financially supported him, was experiencing problems with his employers and thinking about leaving to start his own business. The situation must have exacerbated van Gogh's growing feelings of distress.
Theo heard the news the next day and rushed to Auvers to be by his brother's side. Comforted by Theo's presence, van Gogh told his brother, "I wish I could pass away like this." They were among his last words. He died on July 29 at 1:30 a.m.
A small group of friends and family attended his funeral, abundant with sunflowers. Among the mourners was Gachet, who spoke a few words. "He was an honest man . . . and a great artist," Gachet eulogized. "He had only two goals, humanity and art."
In recent years doubt has been cast on whether the gunshot was self inflicted, according to the groundbreaking research of Pulitzer Prize-winning biographers Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, the painter didn’t shoot himself: he was killed. When they first exposed this theory in their 2011 biography Van Gogh: The Life, it was viciously attacked and contested. Rewriting history is not an easy task.
Now, in a article published in Vanity Fair, the writers substantiate even further their controversial theory, which challenges the deep-seated assumptions about the (now) revered Dutch artist.
According to Naifeh and White Smith’s research, van Gogh was shot accidentally by a man called René Secrétan, who broke a lifetime of silence after seeing Vicente Minnelli’s van Gogh biopic Lust for Life (1956), in which the painter is depicted as killing himself in the woods surrounding the French town of Auvers, just outside Paris.
Secrétan confessed he had led a gang of teenage hooligans who enjoyed getting drunk and bullying the tortured artist. Although he never admitted to having shot van Gogh, Secrétan did declare that he used to dress up as Buffalo Bill and brandish a malfunctioning pistol he got from the keeper of the Ravoux Inn, where the painter lived.
According to Naifeh and White Smith, two days before van Gogh’s death (July 29, 1890), a stray bullet shot from afar hit the painter in the abdomen while he was out in the fields of Auvers. Because it didn’t hit his vital organs, it took over 29 agonizing hours to kill him.
None of the reports of his death mention the word suicide, only that he had “wounded himself.” No one admitted to having found the gun, and the doctors could not really make sense of his wounds.
A few days before the shooting, van Gogh had placed a large order of paints, and on the morning of the day he died, he had sent an upbeat letter to his brother Theo, with an optimistic take on the future. Crucially, no suicide note was ever found.
Why did the suicide version take such a strong hold, then? Well, it simply provided a more logical narrative. Van Gogh’s earlobe episode, which had happened two years earlier, plus his history of nervous breakdowns and alcoholism, made him the perfect artist maudit: a troubled, unpredictable, erratic genius.
Even friends of the artist, such as the painter Émile Bernard, liked to sensationalize van Gogh’s exploits. “My best friend, my dear Vincent, is mad,” he told an art critic in 1889. “Since I have found out, I am almost mad myself.”
The police investigated the death, but according to Naifeh and White Smith, no records survive. The suicide rumours, thus, provided a “better story,” and gained momentum throughout the 20th century by the sheer force of hearsay.
The version that Naifeh and White Smith provide doesn’t alter the fact that van Gogh had a tragic and premature death that could have been avoided. But it shows us a new picture of the painter: the picture of someone with hopes, who believed in his art, and who died by accident.