The Van Gogh Museum marks its 50th year, but it’s not clear what it has learned in a half-century of research. Exhibits continue to sensationalize the artist’s death as a madman’s suicide, beckoning visitors with shows like “On the Verge of Insanity: Van Gogh and his Illness.”

Seeing stars

Granted, the artist suffered an illness of some sort. But if the question is, did it affect his work, the answer is no, not when you consider that he painted his iconic “The Starry Night,” from his window at the Saint-Paul de Mausole asylum where he was a voluntary patient.

Yet, with the museum’s fixation on the artist’s health problems, the swirling hills of the Alpine mountains, the Cypresses, and the stars in “The Starry Night” may easily be taken as signs of a turbulent mind. But his letter to his brother Theo makes plain that wasn’t the case: “Through the iron-barred window...I watch the sunrise and all its glory.” Despite the imprisoning vantage point, Van Gogh found a vivid vastness. He found heaven. If conveying such a wondrous experience is a sign of mental illness, then Claude Monet was out of his mind when painted his extremely blurry “Impression Sunrise.”

Rather than view this painter's art as a sign of illness, why not see it as his great escape? And given the facts of his story, why insist on calling his death a suicide?

Besides the Van Gogh Museum, I’m also faulting a report in The Art Newspaper called “Ten Myths about Van Gogh” by Martin Bailey.

Bailey, author of several books about the artist, included on his list of myths that the artist didn’t take his own life. And he blames this belief on Irving Stone’s 1934 novel “Lust for Life.” Stop right here for a moment.

What kind of scholarship impels a Van Gogh “expert” to fault a novel with inherent poetic license?

Facts versus fiction

And when Bailey calls it a myth that the painter died by another’s hand, he’s contesting the decade-long research that went into the 2011 biography “Van Gogh: the Life,” by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith.

According to Bailey, “the theory is wrong.” “Theory”? Let’s talk facts. The painter was found with a bullet wound in his stomach. Who shoots himself in the stomach to commit suicide? And who then stumbles back to his apartment fully a mile away to die an agonizingly slow death two days later?

While Bailey pooh-poohs any thought of a shooting by anyone other than the artist, Naifeh and Smith back their report in Vanity Fair by quoting a witness to the fateful incident, Rene Secretan, now an old man, who broke a lifetime of silence.

Secretan said he dressed up as Buffalo Bill and waved around a malfunctioning gun and a stray bullet hit the artist. Wait, there’s more. Reports at the time of the artist's death didn’t mention suicide.

No gun was found on his person and the doctor on the scene didn’t understand how the artist got the wounds.

Bailey’s quarrels with Naifeh and Smith over the cause of Van Gogh’s death is baseless. But it’s the museum most responsible for representing the artist with the latest research. Apparently, it’s a juicier story to say the artist offed himself than to say he died from a stray bullet.