In conversation with ArtCurious. Did Van Gogh really kill himself?

By Jennifer Dasal
June 06, 2021 01:04pm
Art Curious

Granted, it may be a somewhat different title to our spotlight sessions that you’re used to by now but, for this week’s spotlight, we decided to speak with Art Historian and Curator, Jennifer Dasal, of ArtCurious.

ArtCurious is a podcast about “the unexpected, slightly odd, and strangely wonderful in art history,” and is an entertaining and educational look into art history as you’ve never seen it. Revealing some of the strangest, funniest, and most fascinating stories behind the world’s great artists and masterpieces, this podcast – and its accompanying book of the same name, published in 2020 by Penguin Books – aims to smash expectations and assumptions about art that are held by aficionados and laypersons alike. Even for our most informed clients, ArtCurious will still most likely surprise you with episodes analysing and exploring the fact the CIA funnelled money to support Abstract Expressionism as a way to fight the Cold War, for example.

Interested to bring such an element of curiosity to our spotlights, we asked Jennifer what her favourite story that she uncovered on the podcast recently was. This was her answer.

One of my favourite art history tales involves the death of the much-beloved artist Vincent van Gogh. And his death – by suicide in July 1890 in the French town of Auvers-Sur-Oise – is as much a part of his story as the famous tale of his cut-off ear is. He’s been called the perfect embodiment of the tortured genius, a creature so agonized by life and failure that he sought his own death as the only solution. But in 2011, two Pulitzer Prize-winning authors published a book titled Van Gogh: The Life that stunned the art world. In their book, authors Gregory White Smith and Stephen Naifeh state that the artist didn’t actually commit suicide. No – they say, he was actually murdered.

Smith and Naifeh spent more than ten years researching and writing Van Gogh: The Life, which they intended to become the definitive biography of Vincent Van Gogh. During their research period, they were given rare access to the archival vaults of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, which held everything from the artist’s preparatory sketches to hundreds of his handwritten letters. While sorting methodically through this treasure trove of information, the authors noticed strange or conflicting information in the various reports of the artist’s suicide, which caused them to pause: the artist’s supposed last letter to his brother, posted the day of his death, told of his hopeful future (and of a large purchase of paints just ordered at his Parisian art supplier); all early firsthand accounts of Vincent’s death referred to the event as Vincent having “wounded himself” or as an “accident” – with no one ever discussing or considering suicide as a potential outcome; and that all of Van Gogh’s painting supplies – left in the field in which he had supposedly been painting the afternoon he shot himself – had mysteriously disappeared, as did the gun that Van Gogh was said to have used. All of this doesn’t seem too suspicious to me upon the first read, but it planted in Smith and Naifeh a seed of conspiratorial doubt.

It seemed, they reckoned, that perhaps Van Gogh didn’t intend to kill himself at all and that a tall tale about suicide became the accepted narrative. To Smith and Naifeh, there was little in the way of hard evidence to support the long-assumed tale of Van Gogh’s suicide: no eyewitnesses to the actual shooting, no literal smoking gun, no firmly identified location of the terrible occurrence. It occurred to the authors that the story bordered more on legend than truth. Could it all be a falsehood, a tall tale? Smith and Naifeh wondered, though they kept their hypothesis to themselves.

And then the most bizarre thing happened. Their hypothesis gained credence with the discovery of another supposed firsthand account of Vincent Van Gogh’s death that had mysteriously been overlooked or forgotten for many years. In 1956, a frail man in his eighties named René Secrétan stepped forward to give a series of interviews to a French journalist, claiming to have a firsthand recollection of the famous Vincent van Gogh. René Secrétan grew up in a prosperous Parisian family, and every summer the whole Secrétan crew would decamp to Auvers-Sur-Oise to enjoy their vacation villa.

In 1890, René was a troublemaking sixteen-year-old, who spent his time hunting, fishing, and generally causing all kinds of outdoorsy mischief with a group of like-minded Auvers pals. Their hero was Buffalo Bill Cody,  the American hunter and showman whose Buffalo Bill’s Wild West had performed to massive sold-out crowds in Paris just the year before, during 1889’s Exposition Universelle. René Secrétan saw the Wild West show and fell utterly under the spell of all things cowboy. When his family moved to Auvers for the summer of 1890, René brought with him a much-prized costume consisting of a buckskin tunic, boots, and a cowboy hat, all purchased at great expense in Paris. But he felt the need to add a little more authenticity to his getup, so he supplemented it with one additional element: a 38-calibre pistol, which, according to René, was a real gun, but one that worked erratically. He used it to shoot birds and squirrels in the countryside, but it also did double-duty as a fairly convincing intimidation apparatus. You see, René wasn’t the nicest child in town. In fact, some of his favourite activities were to play pranks on the locals and to cause mayhem throughout the countryside. And in the summer of 1890, there was one particular person whom he especially enjoyed terrorizing. I’ll give you one guess who it was.

There’s so much more to share about this story– about the Secrétan family, René’s bullying ways, and Vincent van Gogh’s own “spin” on the injury that would take his life–all of which might lead you to consider Van Gogh’s life and artworks in an all-new way.  

Interested to find out more? Tune in to ArtCurious and decide for yourself what really happened.

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