The tumultuous life of Vincent Van Gogh epitomises the myth of the troubled artist: inner turmoil, pitfalls of self-doubt interspersed with moments of great exhilaration and, eventually, a bitter suicide.
Hacking his own ear off was just one of the milestones on Van Gogh's journey to shooting himself in the stomach in 1890. But a new book, due out today by the Pulitzer Prize-winning authors Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, who also wrote a noted biography of Jackson Pollock, suggests that the Dutch artist's suicide is not quite as assured as we've been led to believe.
Van Gogh died in Auvers-sur-Oise, France, shortly after a supposedly self-inflicted gunshot wound to his upper abdomen. He wrote no suicide note, nor did the artist ever show any propensity for having guns around the house before. Naifeh and White Smith write that the bullet appears to have entered Van Gogh "from an unusual, oblique angle - not straight-on as one would expect in a suicide". One of the artist's friends had a younger brother, who often carried a gun and, they continue, "had a history of teasing Vincent in a way intended to provoke him to anger".
An accidental shooting by a third party, then, is speculated upon in the book. But the authors do suggest that Van Gogh's bumbled, half-hearted explanation of a suicide attempt in the 29 hours between the wound and his death was actually designed to pass blame away from his assailant, because death came as a relief to his tortured soul. Is that a happy ending?
Van Gogh's brother reported that his final words were: "The sadness will last forever."
Van Gogh: The Life is available from Amazon.