Van Gogh’s Death
Vincent van Gogh’s life was full of moments of lucidity and madness. He went between periods of happiness where he was optimistic about his career as a painter and the work he was creating. He also went through periods of depression where he realized he was ill and unable to live a normal life. Throughout all of this, he had a few constants: his desire to paint and his brother Theo. Theo always took care of Vincent, both financially and emotionally. But even Theo, Vincent’s brother and confidant, could not prevent a tragic end to the story of Vincent van Gogh.
In Arles, where he was living and painting with Paul Gauguin, Van Gogh had a mental episode that resulted in him cutting a portion of his left ear off. Recognizing the seriousness of his mental instability, those close to him, most notably his brother Theo, urged Vincent to check himself into a mental hospital close to Arles. Theo referred to it as a “momentary rest so as to come back soon with new strength” in a letter to Vincent. Vincent, aware of his illness, agreed to go with a doctor to the hospital. Even then, knowing he was going to be committed, his mind was still on painting. He wrote to Theo discussing new work.
In early May of 1889, Van Gogh went to the Saint-Paul Asylum in the town of Saint-Rémy with a friend from the clergy, Reverend Salles. He spent the next year there mostly confined to the hospital grounds. From there, he painted many of his most well-known works including Irises and Starry Night. He stayed there for a year, writing to Theo in May that “I feel calm enough, and I don’t think that a mental upset could easily happen to me in the state I’m in.” Feeling like there was nothing more for them to do in Saint- Rémy, Van Gogh returned north in May 1890.
The painter Camille Pissarro recommended to Theo that Vincent go to Auvers-sur-Oise, north of Paris and be seen by Dr. Gachet. Theo felt that Vincent would get along with Dr. Gachet as he was a supporter of the arts and had paintings by many artists that Vincent respected. Upon arriving at Auvers, Vincent was not overly impressed by Dr. Gachet, but thought it was good to give him a try. From the beginning, he ignored advice from Dr. Gachet choosing to stay at the Auberge Ravoux inn instead of the inn recommended by the doctor.
For weeks Vincent was in good spirits. He visited Theo and his family Paris, but found the city overwhelming and would return to the country in Auvers. In these final weeks, he painted 70 pictures; a perfect way for an artist to distract himself from his own mind. He painted views of town, the landscape, and the people. He did portraits of Dr. Gachet, whom he was growing fond of. Vincent would also paint the portrait of Adeline Ravoux, the 13 year old daughter of the inn keeper where he stayed. Although young, she remembered many details of Vincent staying there, and was a witness to his final days.
In July of 1890 Vincent was seemingly in good health. He didn’t have any breakdowns, wasn’t writing about madness, and was painting a lot. However, Theo must have seen something in Vincent’s writing. On July 22 Theo wrote to Vincent, “I am a little afraid that there is something troubling you or not going right. In this case drop in to see Dr. Gachet.” Vincent replied, but did not mention any ill health or mental issues. He only talked about his painting.
Much of what we know of Vincent van Gogh’s final days and death is from accounts by the young Adeline Ravoux. She recalled how Vincent had the same routine every day. He would wake, eat breakfast in the morning then leave the inn to paint. Returning home for lunch he would either work on started paintings inside or return outside to continue painting. After dinner, he would stay inside, playing with the youngest child, a baby, of the inn keeper, or writing letters. She remembered what he wore; a short blue jacket, no collar or tie, and a felt or straw hat. Adeline enjoyed having Vincent in their inn saying “he always appeared calm and gentle in Auvers. He was well respected at our place. We called him familiarly “Monsieur Vincent”.”
On Sunday, July 27th 1890, Vincent started the day normally with breakfast. It was before 9:00 A.M. when Vincent left the inn to go out for the day. He didn’t return for lunch, and then didn’t return for dinner. The occupants of the house, the Ravoux family, thought this unusual as Vincent stuck to a routine. While the family was sitting outside on the terrace, Vincent returned at 9:00 P.M. Adeline wrote:
“Vincent walked bent, holding his stomach, again exaggerating his habit of holding one shoulder higher than the other. Mother asked him: “M. Vincent, we were anxious, we are happy to see you to return; have you had a problem?”
He replied in a suffering voice: “No, but I have…” he did not finish, crossed the hall, took the staircase and climbed to his bedroom. I was witness to this scene. Vincent made such a strange impression on us that Father got up and went to the staircase to see if he could hear anything.”
Upon hearing groans, her father entered the room and saw Vincent lying on the bed, holding his hand against his torso. After asking Vincent if he was ill, Vincent lifted his shirt, showed a wound near his heart and replied “I have tried to kill myself.”
Vincent told of how he went to a wheat field where he had painted before. Emile Bernard wrote that Vincent placed his easel against a haystack and went into the field behind a chateau. Sometime in the afternoon, sitting in the field Vincent pulled out a revolver and shot himself in the torso, somewhere between the stomach and the heart. The wound was not immediately fatal and Vincent fell to the ground and fainted. Hours later, as the night cooled, Vincent was awoken by the cool air and realized he was hurt, but not dead. He got up and stumbled back to the inn, where he climbed the stairs to his bedroom and lay down in his bed.
The first thing Vincent requested was a pipe to smoke, which Mr. Ravoux lit for him. Dr. Gachet was called and dressed the wounds, but was not optimistic for Vincent’s survival. Dr. Gachet wanted to try to save Vincent, but he replied “Then I'll have to do it over again.” When the police came to interview Vincent he told them “Do not accuse anybody, it is I that wished to commit suicide.” The police and Dr. Gachet left Mr. Ravoux to look after Vincent for the night. The next morning a telegram was sent to Theo, who arrived in the afternoon. That evening and night both Theo and Mr. Ravoux watched over Vincent as he fell into a coma and died at 1:30 A.M. on Tuesday Morning, July 29th, 1890.
There is an alternate theory surrounding Vincent van Gogh’s death that was put forth by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith in their 2011 biography Van Gogh: The Life. They conclude that a shooting did take place on July 27th, and that he did return in the evening as Adeline Ravoux recounts. However, they disagree with the events in the wheat field. Naifeh and Smith claim that Vincent was bullied by two brothers, including a then 16 year old Rene Secretan. In a 1956 interview, Secretan said that he and his brother put snakes in Vincent’s paint box and salt in his coffee. His brother enjoyed dressing up as a cowboy and the two would torment Vincent, throwing fruit at him. The authors suggest that a faulty pistol, being played with by the young boy accidentally went off and fired a bullet into Van Gogh’s abdomen. Vincent, wanting to die anyway, took responsibility to prevent any punishment to the boys.
This theory, although popular because of its drama, has largely been discounted by Van Gogh scholars. In the interview Secretan doesn’t explicitly admit to killing Van Gogh, and it makes many assumptions with very little evidence.
No matter the details of his death, his funeral was reported as being an emotional event attended by people who knew and respected Vincent as a man and a painter. Bernard wrote that he traveled to Auvers, but arrived after the coffin was closed. After the funeral he wrote:
“On the walls of the room where his body was laid out all his last canvases were hung making a sort of halo for him and the brilliance of the genius that radiated from them made this death even more painful for us artists who were there. The coffin was covered with a simple white cloth and surrounded with masses of flowers, the sunflowers that he loved so much, yellow dahlias, yellow flowers everywhere. It was, you will remember, his favorite color, the symbol of the light that he dreamed of as being in people's hearts as well as in works of art.
Near him also on the floor in front of his coffin were his easel, his folding stool and his brushes. Many people arrived, mainly artists, among whom I recognized Lucien Pissarro and Lauzet, the others I did not know, also some local people who had known him a little, seen him once or twice and who liked him because he was so good-hearted, so human…”