Vincent van Gogh, Still Life Around a Plate of Onions, 1889
I’ve finally gotten my hands on the van Gogh book and have read the part pertaining to the Smith/Naifeh theory which Jonathon Jones writes about somewhat misleadingly, “Now the [van Gogh] museum has once again urged caution, this time about the claim in a new biography that Van Gogh did not shoot himself after all but was mortally wounded in a bizarre accident.”
The book doesn’t make a claim so much as offer a new hypothesis that actually grew out of initial information that the great Cezanne biographer John Rewald turned up regarding van Gogh’s death. Leo Jansen, curator of the Van Gogh Museum and co-editor of Van Gogh’s Complete Letters offers his endorsement on the back of the book: “The definitive biography for decades to come. ”
The authors write at the beginning of the chapter on van Gogh’s death: “No one knows what happened in the five or six hours between Vincent’s midday meal at the Ravoux Inn on Sunday, July 26, and his return with a bullet in his stomach that night.” I’m grateful that they admit this outright and then offer their theory in a appendix rather than distract from the extensively researched and admirable biography (at least what I’ve read of it so far).
Their construction of what they think did happen along with the evidence they gathered in their investigations makes fascinating reading. Their account is plausible, but certainly not convincing. The evidence is circumstantial and when they assert certain things that would be determinative, such as that the gun was fired from a distance rather than close up, they get too tricky by half.
When they make the claim they supply a footnote. When one looks up the footnote one is referred back to the chapter on van Gogh’s death only to read about the bullet fired from this pistol: “That it remained in his body indicated not only a small caliber with limited powder, but also that the gun had been fired from farther out–“too far out” according to the doctor’s report–perhaps farther out than Vincent’s reach.”
And on that “perhaps” all certainty about how van Gogh died founders.
If there had been some actual forensic tests conducted at the time by the physicians (and if they were competent to do them) then there would be some hard evidence to reason from. Without that hard evidence, the authors do provide a completely plausible context for van Gogh’s having been shot by a local miscreant named René Secrétan, whose bullying of treatment of van Gogh makes him one of the more odious figures appearing in the book. But it looks as if van Gogh’s death still remains shrouded in mystery, fitting well the mystery of the man and his work.
Reading the appendix does make one inclined to credit Antonin Artaud’s explanation of Van Gogh as the “Man Suicided by Society,” written in 1947:
And what is an authentic madman? It is a man who preferred to become mad, in the socially accepted sense of the word, rather than forfeit a certain superior idea of human honor. So society has strangled in its asylums all those it wanted to get rid of or protect itself from, because they refused to become its accomplices in certain great nastiness. For a madman is also a man whom society did not want to hear and whom it wanted to prevent from uttering certain intolerable truths.
A letter from van Gogh to Joseph Jacob Isaäcson, 25 May 1890, just two months before he died:
On returning to Paris I read the continuation of your articles on the Impressionists. Without wanting to get into a discussion on the details of the subject you have broached, it seems to me that you are conscientiously trying to tell our fellow-countrymen how matters stand, basing yourself on facts. Since perhaps you will also say a few words about me in your next article I would repeat my scruples, so that you say just only a few words, as I am decidedly certain that I shall never do important things. Although I believe in the possibility that a later generation will again and always be concerned with a continuation of interesting researches into color and modern sentiment, parallel, equivalent to those of Delacroix, Puvis de Chavannes–and that Impressionism will be the source of it, if you like–and that the Dutch of the future will also be engaged in this struggle–all this is in the realm of the possible and your articles certainly have their raison d’etre.