Van Gogh: Why Suicide?
This recent biography by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith contains a very rich reconstruction of what Vincent Van Gogh’s life was like. There is a lot of great new material about his crucial relationship with brother Theo, who worked in an art gallery and often supported Vincent in his artistic journey. I recommend this book to any fan of the famed Dutch post-impressionist painter, especially if you are seeking inspiration about finding your calling and expressing devotion to it with your whole self.
The book became a bestseller on account of its controversial appendix, which questions whether Vincent’s death was a suicide, as critics often contend. The authors gather a lot of missing data about the final period of Vincent’s life in Auvers-sur-Oise in northern France. They flesh out Vincent’s relationships at that time and clarify that several people there targeted him as a freak, especially the older brother of a student friend of his.
In the alternate version of Vincent’s death, that brother, discovered to like playing cowboy, is the owner of a faulty gun that often misfires, and the townspeople are well aware of the situation. One day Vincent goes to paint in the fields and happens into these brothers, using the gun. The older brother teases him, as ever. The gun goes off by accident. Vincent takes a shot to the gut, stumbles home, where he lays in bed for two days, at first believing he’ll recover. Two days later it is clear he will not and he finally answers persistent questions about what happened by saying, “No one shot me.”
I include this book in my reviews section because of this alternate ending. It raises questions about not only the facts, but human nature. Many people object to this reinterpretation of how Vincent died. There is a stubborn glamorization and romanticizing of suicides among suffering artists, as if that act is somehow a fitting end for a tortured soul. Vincent’s mental health struggles and voluntary residence in at least one asylum make him perfect fodder for that treatment. What do you think? Do you think a new vision of Vincent’s death as an accident reduces his legacy or biography?
Personally, I feel the new circumstances elevate his story. As Vincent lays in bed for two days, he comes to understand he is not going to recover. As his life concludes, he makes a choice to protect the two boys by saying he shot himself. In this light, his final earthly act is an expression of deep compassion and a wish to spare the two young men a needless criminal investigation, especially the younger brother, who was Vincent’s friend. Facing death, Vincent’s compassion also extends to the person whose hand held the weapon, a terrible accident, more mischief than malice.
To my tastes, for Vincent to claim he shot himself, when in fact he is looking out for the futures of a friend and for his misguided brother, well, the story rings true to me as what Vincent would do, much more true than a suicide does. I see the person who made all those amazing paintings and originally wanted to be a preacher until his own zeal got him canned as the same person who would cover for those boys, and his final cryptic words support the idea. I also find this version of Vincent’s death much more heroic than suicide, and therefore more pleasing. Rather than losing to despair, Vincent let go of his life with a profound and characteristic sentiment of brotherly concern.