Van Gogh Suicide Likely Meant as Cry for Help

master painter's death at age 37 unlikely to have been intentionally caused, historian says

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Theories abound as to Vincent van Gogh’s death, from murder to suicide. However, his fatal injury was likely intended to be a cry for help rather than to be deadly. This week on Wondrium Shorts, we gain perspective on his passing.

Master painter Vincent van Gogh suffered a gunshot wound on July 27, 1890, that ultimately proved to be fatal. He died two days later in the village of Auvers-sur-Oise, France. While long believed to be intended as a suicide, Van Gogh’s death has had several other theories proposed to explain his motive—or even someone else’s. It’s unlikely that he was murdered, though there were several who could have ended the artist’s life.

The six or so hours between Vincent’s final lunch and his eventual return to Café Ravoux with a bullet in his abdomen will always be a mystery, but there are clues to point historians in the right direction. In his video series In the Footsteps of Van Gogh, art historian Jean-Pierre Isbouts provides the hints that provide context to Van Gogh’s death.

The Unusual Suspects

Who could possibly have wanted to murder Vincent van Gogh? Plenty of people, as it turns out.

“It could have been Marguerite Gachet, who was distraught because Vincent had broken off their love affair,” Isbouts said. “It could have been Paul Gachet, her father, because he did not break off the affair. In 1947, the author Antonin Artaud argued that it was 19th-century society that had killed Vincent, unwilling to accept such an unconventional but deeply gifted mind.”

However, a 2011 Van Gogh biography written by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White-Smith suggests that a 16-year-old bully shot the painter. René Secrétan was the leader of a gang of bullies known to torment Van Gogh. Though Paris was his main home, Secrétan stayed at his family’s summer villa in Auvers, pulling several pranks on Van Gogh, including placing a snake in his paintbox. The biographers suggest a prank intended to scare Vincent with a revolver went wrong, ultimately leading to his death.

“While I very much enjoyed their book, I must confess: This theory about Vincent’s so-called murder holds no water,” Isbouts said. “Secrétan always denied having any role in the shooting, and there is no evidence to back it up. In fact, he wasn’t even in the area at the time.”

So, what really happened?

A Brother’s Love

Van Gogh left behind plenty of evidence of depression and bipolar disorder, including letters filled with suicidal ideation. Self-harm is common in both bipolar and depression patients, and Vincent’s mauling of his ear suggests this as well.

“But this is the essential point: Vincent did not intend to kill himself, but rather to inflict an injury, for the same reason that he hurt himself in Arles: as a cry for attention, a cry for help,” Isbouts said. “Only by injuring himself could he justify the immense burden that he knew he’d placed on [brother] Theo and [sister-in-law] Jo and compel them to do what he so desperately wanted: for them to come to Auvers, and stay with him, and to love him.”

Vincent often depended on his brother Theo for emotional and financial support. By 1890, Theo could no longer afford his own bills and Vincent’s—and with his wife Johanna and their son needing Theo to play a role in their own family, he had less time to spare for his brother. According to Isbouts, if Vincent injured himself sufficiently, his brother’s family could move in with him and they could all live together in one household.

“What provoked this desperate act was, quite possibly, Theo’s letter from July 15, in which he wrote that the family was finally packing its bags,” Isbouts said. “But they weren’t coming to Auvers, as Vincent had hoped. They had instead decided to go on an extended visit to the family in Holland. In Vincent’s mind, they were abandoning him.”

In an effort to clear up the issue of suicide, Isbouts pointed out that the only way to guarantee a quick and painless death would have been for Vincent to aim for his own head, not the stomach. Knowing this, he said, Vincent more likely hoped to avoid damaging any vital organs, believing instead that he could be saved by a doctor. However, he fainted, and after arriving six hours later at his room above the Café Ravoux, he, ultimately, ended up dying there two days later.

This article is part of our “Deeper Dive” series where we examine the stories behind our Wondrium Shorts on YouTube.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily