It’s no longer a given that Van Gogh took his own life. While that’s been the storyline for a long time, there are those now who contend that he was murdered. Yet even without knowing the arguments for or against suicide, just looking at what has always been known can prompt you to wonder why the artist’s death was ever called a suicide.


Visualize the day that Van Gogh took the bullet that killed him. It was July 27, 1890, a day like any other in his busy creative life. He painted a picture a day. After breakfast, he headed outdoors to paint, this time to a corn field to catch the light illuminating the golden sheaths and the way they swayed in the wind.

The field was a mile from his lodging and on the hike he hauled an easel, as well as a box of paints and brushes. Clearly he had painting on his mind, not self-destruction. You don’t trudge a mile lugging an easel if you intend to shoot yourself.

Self-inflicted wound?

The next known thing is that he was seen returning to his lodging after dark bent over at the waist after dark. It was his habit to come back from painting outdoors before sundown. He collapsed on his bed with a bullet in his stomach and never got back up. He died two days later of the gunshot wound. All of which raises questions: if his aim was to die, why aim for the stomach? Why tramp the mile back home and chance being saved?

The Van Gogh Museum believes it was a suicide

The Amsterdam museum named after the painter, boasting the largest collection of his work, reckons that if you’re crazed enough to cut off your ear, you’re also liable to cut your life short. In an exhibit called “On the Verge of Insanity,” the museum aims to make the case that Van Gogh’s emotional problems not only got in the way of his workbut that his work also made his problems worse, ultimately driving him to do himself in.

This goes against the contention by the artist’s biographers, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith who believe that Van Gogh was a victim of a homicide.

How broken was Van Gogh?

Granted he endured periods of depression. But if the museum is right and the bouts got in the way of his work, what explains his phenomenal output of some 900 paintings in ten years?

His biographers also point out that he didn’t leave a suicide note, which they call odd because he was a prolific letter writer, mostly to his brother Theo. What’s more, they say that before the shooting, he had ordered a large supply of art supplies.

And here’s the thing. The earliest reports of the shooting never mentioned suicide. It would seem that making Van Gogh out to be a mad genius switches over his story into the stuff of legend.

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