Who Killed Van Gogh?
Assume for a moment that the most celebrated suicide in history was not a suicide. Given the many incongruities of Vincent van Gogh’s death, that is not difficult to do. Indeed, much of the Van Gogh world is now doing it.
But if Vincent van Gogh didn’t fire the pistol shot that ended his life in the French village of Auvers-sur-Oise on July 27, 1890, who did?
Ten basic suspects (two of them suspect-groups) have been proposed, along with so many scenarios that examining them in any detail gets to be a bit like playing an Auvers version of the old board-game Clue.
Only to win this game of Who Killed Van Gogh? you must pick a suspect and come up with a scenario that provides: 1) a credible motive; 2) a reason why Vincent, on his deathbed, would accept the crime, assume the blame and protect your suspect’s identity (“Do not accuse anyone. It is I who wanted to kill myself”); and 3) an explanation for why Theo, who sat with Vincent for thirteen conscious hours in the Ravoux Inn and presumably quizzed him about what the heck happened, would want to go to his grave protecting the identity of your man (or woman).
And if you want to nominate a suspect who’s not on the list, remember: to be viable, he must know the confusing geography of Auvers well enough to manage the feat of finding Vincent, shooting him and making a clean getaway without being noticed by some suspicious villager.
This is the challenge. Here are the suspects:
1. JOHANNA VAN GOGH -- This hypothesis has Theo’s wife Jo secretly taking a train from Holland, where she was visiting relatives, and plugging Vincent as he was at work in the fields that Sunday. God knows she had a motive. Vincent was driving her husband crazy and robbing them of a good part of their monthly income. It must have looked like this albatross was going to hang there forever. She’d also been to Auvers just a few weeks before, so she knew the terrain. Also, she’s someone whose identity both Vincent and Theo would have protected from the cops. But there’s nothing in her character that would indicate she might do such a thing, the train trip from Holland took up most of a day in 1890 and she mailed letters from Leiden and Amsterdam postmarked July 26, 27 and 28. Moreover, she had a newborn baby to care for. Forget it.
2. DR. GACHET -- The theory that Vincent’s Auvers physician-of-record did him in has a long tradition. Antonin Artaud shouted it in his 1948 book Van Gogh le Suicidé de la Société. The 1991 French film, Van Gogh, clumsily hints at it. Several of the Fauve artists, perhaps even Matisse, suspected Gachet’s glaring eccentricity might include a penchant for euthanasia. And, assuming this penchant, he had a certain motive: after Vincent exploded in anger at him in the famous Guillaumin-painting incident, he’d concluded that his patient was a hopeless case. But the sixty-two-year-old doctor was suspected of being a poisoner, not a shooter. And why would Vincent protect him? Even more pertinent, why would Theo -- who was later effusive in his praise of the doctor’s treatment of his brother -- want to protect him? It doesn’t wash.
3. PAUL GACHET JR. -- If not the doctor, how about his son, who turned seventeen that summer? This theory assumes that the doctor realized that Vincent had realized he was a serial mercy-killer, intended to expose him and was staying away from a poisoning opportunity. And, to protect his father (or on his father’s orders) Junior went to the wheatfield with a gun. This is not quite as preposterous as it first sounds. Gachet Jr. was even more of an odd duck than his father and he spent most of his life hiding in the Gachet Villa, dedicated to protecting his father’s art collection and his father’s reputation, and looking very guilty about something. Over those seventy-two years he changed his story about Van Gogh’s death many times, often drastically. Thus, the Gachet fils theory has its proponents. It supplies, to some degree, a motive. But, again, why on earth would the brothers protect him?
4. RENÉ SECRÉTAN -- This is the suspect advocated by the authors of the 2011 mega-biography, Van Gogh: The Life. In their scenario, deduced from an interview the aged Secrétan gave in 1957, the then-teenage boy and his hoodlum friends either accidentally or on purpose shot Vincent in the act of bullying and humiliating him. Right now, this is the reigning theory. But it’s just not very credible. Secrétan is not mentioned once in the letters, there’s no evidence he was in Auvers at the time, he appears to have had (by several accounts) a questionable character and no previous biographer ever believed his Swiss-cheese of a story about having known Vincent. Moreover, that interview he gave all those years later was not, as the advocates of this theory often contend, a “confession” of anything criminal. And even if you accept accident or sheer adolescent viciousness as motive, why would the brothers protect a gang of bullying juvenile delinquents? No way.
5. MARGUERITE GACHET -- This theory, which speculates Van Gogh had an affair with Dr. Gachet’s twenty-one-year-old daughter, has two scenarios. Scenario One links up with the Gachet theory above and has Vincent gunned down by the father (or perhaps his son) in order to protect Marguerite from the sexual advances of, or perhaps even to keep her from marrying, the syphilitic failed artist. Scenario Two has Marguerite, out of sexual jealousy or spurned feminine fury or perhaps even to avoid a rape, pulling the trigger herself. But, though recent moviemakers have loved to assume it, there’s not a syllable of evidence in the record or hint in the letters suggesting he had even a mild interest in her. She was described as “the shyest person in the world” and spent most her life living with her brother as a spinster. Yes, Vincent painted her twice that summer so
Portrait of Johanna van Gogh
BY JOHAN COHEN GOSSCHALK,
Dr. Paul-Ferdinand Gachet
BY NORBERT GOENEUTTE,
Portrait of Paul Gachet fils
BY ÉMILE BERNARD, 1926
Sketch of Unidentified Boy
BY VINCENT VAN GOGH, 1890
Marguerite Gachet in the Garden
BY VINCENT VAN GOGH, 1890
he obviously had some dealings with her. But, by all testimony, he was a workhorse in Auvers: up at dawn, painting all day, in bed by nine. No alcohol, no messing around. Seventy paintings and thirty drawings in seventy days. He didn’t have the time or the energy or the inclination for a love affair. And to avoid a rape? What would a wallflower like Marguerite Gachet be doing walking around with a loaded pistol? Be serious.
6. ADELINE RAVOUX -- If Vincent didn’t have the time or the inclination for an affair with a homely girl who lived a half-hour away, how about an affair with his innkeeper’s beautiful thirteen-year-old daughter? He painted her three times that summer and, by her own report, she had a romantic nature. Her room was just across the courtyard and she was often in the fields. Shortly before her death, she admitted the missing gun used in the shooting may have been her father’s. While jealousy or feminine wrath doesn’t work as a motive for her, a sexual assault might. Certainly the brothers would not want to confess a scenario in which Vincent was a failed jail-bait rapist. But, as with Marguerite, why would she be carrying around a loaded pistol? Moreover, she was the whistleblower in the Mystery of Auvers: she’s the one who came forward in the 1950s as a seventy-eight-year-old widow suggesting the suicide was not what it seemed. Would she want to blow the whistle on herself? Way too big a stretch.
7. THE PROACTIVE RELATIVE -- If a thirteen-year-old girl was unlikely to have pulled the trigger on an overly amorous artist, what about her burly father, Arthur Ravoux? And if Theo’s pregnant wife was unlikely to have made a homicidal trip to Auvers, how about her brother (and Theo’s best friend), Andries Bonger? A Ravoux scenario imagines him as a brute with a history of violence; and the brothers, cowering in the garret, keeping quiet out of fear he might take revenge on Theo and his family. And a Dries Bonger scenario is fueled by the fact that he was known to have resented and actively disliked Vincent, and later even urged his sister to trash all those “worthless” Van Gogh paintings. But both are pipe dreams. By every account, Arthur Ravoux was a total pussycat. And as far as anyone knows, Dries Bonger had never once been to Auvers before Vincent’s funeral and thus could not possibly have managed the difficult geographic demands of the crime-and-escape. Keep trying.
8. THE FAMOUS ARTIST -- To the Hollywood or tabloid mindset, this one is fairly irresistible. It accepts Artaud’s thesis that Van Gogh’s towering artistic gift was instantly recognized by other artists and engendered in them a pathological jealousy. Only it moves the accusing finger from the artist-doctor Gachet to some other artist in the area. Who was in the area? Only a Who’s Who of French Impressionism. Monet and Rodin were both a stone’s throw away and Theo may have visited them shortly before the shooting. Pissarro, who Dr. Gachet, Theo and Vincent all knew well, lived in nearby Pontoise. Their old pal Gauguin, with all his twisted psychology, was living in Brittany at the time of the shooting but could have made a secret trip to the wheatfields of Auvers. Renoir, Sisley,
ADELINE RAVOUX, 1890
ANDRIES BONGER, 1888
and Morisot had all painted in Auvers, knew its environs well, and were only an hour away by train. The possibilities are endless, and delicious. But, again, accepting the motive of insane professional jealousy, what would induce the brothers to stay mum about it?
9. THE UNKNOWN GAY LOVER -- If a female lover didn’t do Vincent in, how about a male one? This requires a bit more imagination but seems remotely possible. Who might such a mystery man be? We have a lengthy list of minor artists we know Vincent knew in Auvers: for instance, his fellow Dutchman Tommy Hirschig; his other fellow-lodger in the inn, the Venezuelan Martinez de Valdivielse; and the Australian Walpole Brooke, who we know Vincent painted with in the fields during the final
weeks. What about his young friend and admirer Émile Bernard? He was living not far away. Or maybe someone from that “family of Americans” who were summering next door to the Ravoux Inn that Vincent mentions twice in the letters. Surely, in 1890, the brothers would not want to publicize a gay encounter that had turned violent in the wheatfields. The only problem with this theory is that there is no memoir or homoerotic brushstroke in the paintings or syllable in the many heavy volumes of his letters that suggests Vincent might have had any closeted gay inclinations. To the contrary, everything indicates he was more heterosexual than Pepé Le Pew.
10. THEO VAN GOGH -- Well, Theo definitely had motive: To remove a millstone from his neck, and end a painting-a-day addiction of ever-decreasing salability that he could no longer financially accommodate. He was also in the proper homicidal frame of mind: he was becoming completely unbalanced and within a few weeks would be wrestled into a straightjacket after trying to kill his wife and infant child. And surely, if he’d pulled the trigger, both brothers would keep that fact to themselves in the Ravoux Inn. When you factor in the missing letter T41b and the testimony of Adeline Ravoux and others that was supposedly covered up by the French Secret Service in the 1950s, Theo looks very, very good for the job. But... could history’s most shining paradigm of brotherly love be, in reality, a fratricide? A Cain and Abel horror story? Say it isn’t so.