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Was Van Gogh Murdered? A New Book Says Yes

A new book, written by Pulitzer winners, is raising eyebrows over how it says the great Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh died. Van Gogh: The Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, posits that Van Gogh did not kill himself as is popularly believed.

Instead, the authors argue, Van Gogh was murdered. Here's how The Telegraphexplains their thinking:

The theory contradicts the accepted version of events, which holds that Van Gogh shot himself in a field, staggering more than a mile back to an inn where he was staying. Before dying 30 hours later, he was asked if he meant to commit suicide, and said: "Yes I believe so".

But this does not explain why the easel and brushes that he had taken to the fields with him that day, not to mention a gun, were never found, and nor was a suicide note. The book questions whether the artist, who was known to have spent time in an insane asylum, could have got hold of a gun.

The authors say that 16-year-old Rene Secretan, who bullied Van Gogh, was the one responsible for his death. They talked about this on a long 60 Minutes segment that aired yesterday:

One more piece of evidence the authors point out is that a doctor noticed the bullet that killed Van Gogh was in his abdomen and came in at an odd angle for a suicide.

Will Gompertz, the BBC's arts editor, writes today that the two make a "a good, but not utterly convincing, argument." He just can't get over why Van Gogh would cover up his own murder:

On answering why the dying Vincent would have covered up the truth for a boy he loathed (who, they say was with his brother Gaston, with whom Vincent was friendly) the authors reasoned, "because Vincent welcomed death" and didn't want to drag the brothers "into the glare of public enquiry... for having done him this favour".

That doesn't sound a strong enough case upon which to base their argument.

They lavish praise and authority (too much perhaps) on their two main sources upon which they built their version of events. And pay little heed to the one person who was definitely there - Vincent Van Gogh - when he quite clearly said, "Do not accuse anyone," he said, "it is I who wanted to kill myself".

The AP reports today that the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam took a similar stand. The AP reports:

Leo Jansen, curator of the Van Gogh Museum and editor of the artist's letters, said the biography is a "great book," but experts have doubts about the authors' theory of his death in 1890.

"We cannot yet agree with their conclusions because we do not think there is enough evidence yet," Jansen told The Associated Press.

At the same time, there has never been any independent evidence to support Van Gogh's dying confession that he had shot himself.

"There's no proof. We just know what he said, and that's what people always went by," Jansen said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.