Did Van Gogh die in an unfortunate brush with fate?
Art historians say it was suicide – but a new book claims he met his demise in a shooting accident
Rob Sharp is a freelance journalist specialising in arts and culture. He was on staff at The Independent from July 2007 to December 2011, first as a features writer, and then as the paper’s arts correspondent. He has written for a wide range of newspapers and magazines. For more information visit his website, www.robsharp.com or email him at email@example.com.
Saturday 15 October 2011
He is one of the biggest names in art history, who was believed to have come to an equally momentous death. However, a new book to be published next week will reveal that the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh did not, in fact, commit suicide.
Van Gogh: The Life, published in Britain on Monday and to be trailed in the US tomorrow night in an episode of the news show 60 Minutes, is the result of 10 years of research by its authors, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. The pair's biography of the US artist Jackson Pollock was honoured with a Pulitzer Prize in 1991.
All copies of the book have been shipped out under strict embargo, but news leaked out yesterday evening as CBS began promoting the show.
The Independent can reveal the authors believe Van Gogh died because of a shooting accident. CBS claims the revelations could "rewrite art history".
Van Gogh, a Dutch Post-Impressionist who died in 1890 aged 37, suffered from anxiety and mental illness throughout his life.
Popular opinion is that, on the morning of 27 July, Van Gogh shot himself in the chest with a revolver in the countryside outside Paris, dying from his wounds two days later. Speculation has abounded over where this happened – some say in a wheat field, others in a barn – but most believe ultimately it happened by his own hand.
However, the US authors claim to have uncovered new evidence which suggest the most likely cause of his death is at the hands of a third party, believed to be two local boys and involving a malfunctioning pistol.
In their promotion of the programme, CBS say the writers have arrived at their conclusions by asking questions including: "Could Van Gogh have inflicted a painful wound and still walked over a mile on difficult terrain?"
They also question whether the artist, who was known to have spent time in an insane asylum, could have got hold of a gun. They challenge theories which state Van Gogh's last painting was the morose July 1890 offering Wheat Field with Crows. The new work relies on previously untranslated letters belonging to Van Gogh's family. The book also features dozens of new photographs.
The programme will be presented by the Canadian reporter Morley Safer. CBS said in a statement: "Safer's story, illustrated with the vibrant work of the painter, follows Naifeh and Smith as they make a compelling argument for what they say is a much more likely cause of death. The authors point to unknown suspects and new evidence, while also clarifying other accepted details of the Van Gogh legend."
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