Anyone who sets out to research the 1890 death of Vincent van Gogh in the French village of Auvers-sur-Oise is immediately faced with a huge handicap: that vast library of books about the artist which parrot the traditional suicide scenario as if it had come down from Mt. Sinai.
This scenario was largely concocted by one man, Paul Gachet Jr., who impressed it on every major Van Gogh biographer of the twentieth century, and set it in the stone of two influential ’50s memoirs. As late as 1994, a posthumous third Gachet memoir appeared to insure its grip on history.
As full of holes as that version is, the man sold it well. No one dared to challenge him until the 1950s, and then only in veiled innuendo or unsupported outbursts that -- if later whistleblowers are to be believed -- were ruthlessly silenced by a campaign of the French Secret Service.
Even now that the lid is off and the suicide has been challenged by Time, Vanity Fair and the Huffington Post, it’s still not an easy subject to pursue because the sources are so spotty and the monolith of Van Gogh scholarship has so much invested in the Gachet account.
However, as narrow and filled with speed-bumps and deliberately laid obstacles as it may be, there is a definite path into the murky depths of Auvers; and an armchair detective can find help or inspiration from a number of books by authors who have each, in one way or another, peered through the smoke-screen.
Here are twelve of them:
1. THE VAN GOGH FILE -- This extraordinary first-person account by British journalist Ken Wilkie chronicles a series of investigations he made over a thirty-year period beginning in 1972 that uncovered new information about the artist’s life, turned up an original Van Gogh drawing in an English attic, collected contradictory testimony about the suicide from a descendant of an 1890 Auvers resident and generally showed the biographical canon so long maintained by the Gachet and Van Gogh families to be a fairly flimsy house of cards.
2. VINCENT AND THEO VAN GOGH: A DUAL BIOGRAPHY -- Until his death in 2002, the Dutch/Canadian scholar Jan Hulsker was widely considered the world’s premiere authority on the Van Gogh letters, and this study he made of the brothers’ relationship (originally published in the Netherlands in 1985 and reprinted in English in 1990) is the first work to openly question the myth of unadulterated brotherly love, and bring up a series of disturbing perversities in Theo’s character that have never been explained or investigated.
3. VAN GOGH IN SAINT-RÉMY AND AUVERS -- Ronald Pickvance is one of the more original, open-minded and trustworthy of modern Van Gogh scholars and this hardback guide he wrote for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 1986-87 exhibition of late-career Van Gogh masterpieces is a gold mine of information about the Auvers summer, with a day-by-day chronology of all that’s known about those climactic last seventy days. It’s also the first work I’ve seen that brings up the idea that digitalis poisoning might have played a role in Vincent’s downfall.
5. PORTRAIT OF DR. GACHET: THE STORY OF A VAN GOGH MASTERPIECE -- Journalist/art historian Cynthia Saltzman’s 1998 examination of the creation and century-long provenance of Vincent’s most celebrated (and monetarily valuable) painting has been rightly praised as a “breathtakingly suspenseful scholarly thriller.” In the process of this offbeat historical adventure, she manages to impart all sorts of rare information about the highly eccentric subject of the canvas, his checkered career as a physician, his life in Auvers and his curious relationship with his most famous patient.
4. VINCENT VAN GOGH: CHEMICALS, CRISES, AND CREATIVITY -- Biochemist Wilfred Neil Arnold’s underappreciated 1992 work is a kind of Whole Earth Catalog of Vincent data: maps, charts, statistics, interviews with experts (including John Rewald) and speculation about the various chemicals and drugs Van Gogh may have ingested and how they may have influenced his life and death. It’s a clearheaded summary of all the pharmaceutical information any amateur investigator of Van Gogh’s death will want to have at his fingertips.
6. CÉZANNE TO VAN GOGH: THE COLLECTION OF DOCTOR GACHET -- This gorgeous coffee-table book published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art is essentially a guide to the Museum’s 1999 exhibition of the Musée d’Orsay’s Gachet donations. But it’s the only book I’ve ever found that goes into the 1955 Gachet Collection forgery scandal in any detail and it contains a wealth of information about Louis Anfray, Blanche Derousse and other historically obscure figures who play a prominent role in the Mystery of Auvers.
7. VAN GOGH’S TABLE -- This beautifully designed 2001 volume, co-written by former Van Gogh Museum chief curator Fred Leeman and culinary historian Alexandra Leaf, is half history of Van Gogh’s time in Auvers and half recipe-book celebrating the regional French cooking of the Auberge Ravoux: a world-class restaurant that now resides in the museum setting of Vincent’s final residence. The history half is filled with insights and information (and pictures) of Auvers you can’t find anywhere else.
9. VAN GOGH: THE COMPLETE PAINTINGS -- Every library needs a coffee table showcase of the entire Van Gogh catalog and the commentary of this handsome 2002 version by Ingo F. Walther and Rainer Metzger is highly readable and unusually iconoclastic: it argues, for instance, that Vincent was faking at least some of his insanity in St-Rémy to facilitate his free-ride as a painter. It also analyzes the crucial place the Auvers suicide has long occupied in the ethos of Vincent with a shrewdness I have seen in no other book.
8. VAN GOGH -- Judy Sund may be the least known of all top-drawer Van Gogh authorities but if I had to recommend one book that would concisely tell novice Vincent buffs and aspiring Auvers detectives what they need to know about the artist’s roots, life, work, temperament and mythology, her 350-page critical-biographical study published by Phaidon Press in 2002 (as part of its Arts & Ideas series) would be it. No other scholar has ever grasped the phenomenon of Vincent, or seen through its hokum, more perceptively.
11. KILLING VINCENT: THE MAN, THE MYTH, AND THE MURDER -- In 1990, Dr. I. Kaufman Arenberg made a name for himself in Van Gogh circles with his argument in the pages of the Journal of the American Medical Association that Vincent may have suffered from the inner-ear disorder, Meniere’s Disease. In 2018, he jumped back in the Van Gogh arena with the first book to stop beating around the bush and actually scream “Murder” on its cover. He cuts through the hokum surrounding the suicide, examines the complicated forensics of the cold case, demonstrates why a self-inflicted gunshot wound could not possibly have happened and examines the various possibilities for whodunit on that fatal Sunday in July 1890 and how.
10. VAN GOGH: THE LIFE -- Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith’s 2011 doorstopper is the longest (953 pages), most detailed (6000 pages of notes, on its companion website) and relentlessly canon-busting of all Van Gogh biographies. It’s a major undertaking to read and it presents a Vincent you’d never want to meet in person; but its sheer volume is likely to make it the all-time definitive biography of the artist and -- despite its shockingly shoddy research into the Auvers period -- it’s the first major scholarly work with the insight and courage to step up and say the suicide never happened.
12. THE MURDER OF VINCENT VAN GOGH -- As if to prove that the mystery is here to stay, this book also appeared in 2018 to argue that the suicide was a murder and the likely culprit was Dr. Gachet. Written by South African true-crime writer Nick van der Leek, it gets to its point by reasoning through the evidence and comparing the case to others the author has investigated. It’s not totally convincing by any meaans but the writing is persuasive and often touching and the author comes up with some valuable new information about the death of Vincent & Theo’s younger brother Cor in the Boer War.
Also pertinent are Antonin Artaud’s 1948 Van Gogh Le Suicidé de la Société, which is hard-to-decipher and hardly substantive but still manages to be a landmark work in the Mystery of Auvers; John Houseman’s 1979 Front and Center, the last of his three volumes of memoirs, which includes his recollection of filming Lust for Life in Auvers-sur-Oise in 1955; Susan Alyson Stein’s 1986 Van Gogh: A Retrospective, a prodigious compendium of writings about Van Gogh, which includes some of the reminiscences of Adeline Ravoux; Nathalie Heinch’s 1996 The Glory of Van Gogh: An Anthropology of Admiration, which exhaustively “traces the canonization of Van Gogh as a cultural hero for the twentieth century;” and, of course, Vincent van Gogh: The Letters, which, following a fifteen-year research project, were reedited and republished in 2010 by the Van Gogh Museum in a lavish, six-volume, annotated-and-illustrated edition, the contents of which are available free online at www.vangoghletters.org.