Vincent Van Gogh Murdered! by David Lloyd Glover
Like the old line from the movie, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
And so goes the legend of one of the world’s most famous artists, Vincent Van Gogh. The tortured artist, who sliced off his ear, only sold one painting in his lifetime and shot himself dead. Well, these are partial truths but they are not the whole story. I can’t tell you how often friends and acquaintances upon learning that I’m an artist, will quote one or all of these important Van Gogh legends. Politely I acknowledge their grasp of Art History and leave it at that. It’s too complicated a topic for cocktail chatter anyway.
However, before we get into who murdered Vincent Van Gogh, let’s discuss who he was and see if I can’t dispel some of these often quoted myths.
I think we can agree that Vincent was a complicated man. After all he was a definite loner and essentially a self-imposed social outcast. You could apply that to many of today’s literary geniuses, composers, auteur or whoever does extraordinary creative work. After all, if you spend too much of your time commiserating with the cognoscenti how are you going to break new creative territory? Creative invention takes an enormous focus and many long hours logged on your working process. Van Gogh was definitely focused on his artistic journey as is evidenced by his large body of work produced over a mere ten years. A brief thirty month period from February 1888 through May 1890 and to his death on July 29, 1890 yielded an astounding 463 works by Vincent. Buy a copy of Van Gogh The Complete Paintings by I.F. Walther and R. Metzger, and you will be amazed at the shear volume and quality of work he created. It is even more incredible when you bear in mind that this was before any modern shortcuts and tools were invented.
So it is safe to conclude that Van Gogh was an artist that was driven by his laser focus on his creative work. Was he the best of friends, did he have a lot of time to hang out with the neighbors? I don’t think so.
Van Gogh chopped his ear off.
Well, he did some slicing for certain, which is memorialized by his own bandaged visage in two January 1889 self-portraits. Actually he didn’t slice his ear off, he trimmed off the bottom of the right earlobe as a gift to his prostitute girlfriend. Some gift. But this was Vincent as his most needy self. Here is a deeply religious man who consorts with a whore and likely tries to dominate her and eradicate those sinful ways. No doubt having Vincent hanging around would have been bad for her business, and so it’s likely that she had to cut him off.
Nowadays, physical mutilation has become almost commonplace with all sorts of facial piercings, ear plugs, and tongue bolts just to mention a few. To a contemporary Van Gogh, this act would barely be noticed or considered extreme.
Van Gogh only sold one painting in his lifetime.
Vincent’s supportive brother Theo was an art dealer at Goupil & Cie gallery in Paris. Although Van Gogh’s works were not exhibited fulltime within the gallery, Theo would show his paintings on demand. So, at least his paintings were surrounded by works of Seurat, Pissarro, Toulouse-Lautrec, Cezanne and other popular Impressionists of the time. True, there was only one single painting sold during his lifetime, “The Red Vineyard” purchased by artist Anna Bloch for 400 francs in Brussels. Now it hangs in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow.
However, Vincent did have an art’s patron. So for him, creating art wasn’t about making sales because his biggest customer was Theo. Indeed, Theo “owned” the largest collection of Van Gogh’s art, and was motivated to convert those into much needed cash for himself so that he could continue financing his brother’s art. Theo would suggest that Vincent should create pretty Impressionist landscapes that would be more in demand in Paris, but his brother had moved far beyond that.
Vincent also used his paintings as currency, and traded his art for favors and payment. If only people knew what bargains they were picking up back then!
Vincent was a crazy artist.
Based upon letters to his brother Theo, Vincent experienced bouts of depression. Clinical depression would not be related to or be a serious impediment to his artistic work. Vincent was a person who suffered from an affliction, he was not depressed about his art. Theo introduced Vincent to Paul Gauguin and urged them to work together in the south of France. This partnership of two artistic colleagues ultimately failed. Vincent became bored with Gauguin and no doubt felt superior to him as a painter. History has proved Van Gogh correct. Vincent’s evolving art theory did prove to be the greater and more ground breaking of the two. Gauguin was no slouch but he was artistically in Vincent’s shadow. Did the failure of this artist relationship prove that Vincent was crazy? No. It was more of an illustration of his lack of patience and overall difficulty getting along with others. Not uncharacteristic of the genius mentality.
Vincent shot himself
It is the popular legend that Van Gogh left the asylum in Auvers-sur-Oise on a warm summer day in July 1890, went out to a field and shot himself. He died from the gunshot wound a few days later, and therefore committed suicide. Or did he?
Authors Steven Neifeh and Gregory White Smith in their new book Van Gogh The Life have included a story that was learned by art historian John Rewald in the 1930s. This story claims that Van Gogh was shot by a reckless local teenager in Auvers who owned a pistol. Vincent didn’t own a gun, nor would he even know how to handle one. The teenager, Rene Secretain, had been observed in contact with the inebriated artist so the possibility of a confrontation between them existed. At the time no weapon was ever located in the field or on the long route back to the asylum. Take into account the angle of the shot to Van Gogh’s torso, and it would seem very unlikely it was self-inflicted.
That is the physical evidence that all the NCIS buffs can ruminate over and discuss crime scene theories.
First as a religious man, suicide is an aberration so that would tend to rule out a motivation to actually follow through on bringing about his own demise. Also, Vincent was a trained art dealer as a younger man in Belgium. He loathed the idea that art dealers would profit handsomely from the death of an artist by inflating the prices for the paintings being sold posthumously. Therefore, he wouldn’t want to participate in that sales technique with his own art inventory.
I was never convinced about the suicide conclusion because as an artist, Van Gogh was enjoying some considerable success. I don’t mean in the commercial sense, but rather in artistic achievement. Vincent was an evolving painter, and what he felt he lacked as a traditional draftsman he more than made up for with his powerful color sense, composition and brushwork. In his later paintings created during the last 30 months of his life, Van Gogh was truly creating his finest works. His paintings were becoming increasingly bold and simplistic in their brushwork. As an artist I can tell you that it takes many years to find that place where your confidence is supreme and your signature style is firmly realized.
Vincent knew that he was achieving his art theory and vision in his paintings. He had recently been included in an important Brussels group exhibition where his six paintings intimidated one of the other artists so much so that he pulled out of the show. News of that incident would have been music to Vincent’s ear.
One of Vincent’s last paintings was the monumental canvas Wheat Field With Crows. This was one of several wheat field themed paintings that were completed at the time. If you have ever viewed this work in the person as I have, you would be struck by the power of its simplicity and the bravura of the brushstrokes. Historians saw this is as the dark foreboding of his death and struggle. I don’t see it that way. Van Gogh was able to paint a powerful and intense scene of an approaching summer rainstorm with not much subject matter involved. This was Vincent’s artistic theory at its very best, and he knew it. This is not characteristic of an artist who was suddenly going to stop painting because it was a struggle. Painting was his life and his power.
The next time you hear someone sum up Vincent Van Gogh’s life history in a few sound bites, remember that legends are usually greater than the truth.
And yes, I think Vincent Van Gogh; one of the greatest artists of all time was murdered.
This article was written by David Lloyd Glover, a wonderful artist that has been featured on Art & Coin Television on multiple occasions. Tune in Thursday, November 18th, at 8pm EST / 5pm PST to see David Lloyd Glover live on-air! Barry is excited to feature a stunning collection of originals that David created exclusively for Friday’s show. Don’t miss a truly spectacular night of art! See a preview of the show here.