Vincent van Gogh Murdered? New Book Presents Different Account of Artist’s Death

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Experts have said for more than 100 years that post-impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh walked to a wheat field on July 27, 1890, shot himself in the chest with a pistol, then died two days later in his room at the age of 37. But a new book by Pulitzer Prize-winning authors Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith — who were honored in 1991 for a biography about American painter Jackson Pollock – argues the troubled artist might have been murdered.

Their latest biography, “Van Gogh: The Life,” will be released Tuesday.

“The first inkling I got that there was something wrong was when I really started to look at the existing story. There were so many things about it that were wrong and didn’t make sense,” Smith told Morley Safer on “60 Minutes” Sunday.

The authors questioned why (and how) the Dutch artist would have obtained a gun, and pointed out that the gun was never found. They also challenged the idea that Van Gogh could have walked all the way back to his room in Auvers-sur-Oise, northwest of Paris, with a serious injury.

“How did he climb through these vast wheat fields and down the escarpment into the town?” Naifeh asked on “60 Minutes.” “It’s extremely difficult to imagine that in that physical condition he could have made that trip.”

After arriving back home, Van Gogh told his brother Theo that he had shot himself.  Yet the bullet’s trajectory was “at a crazy angle,” the authors added, and the gun was held “at a distance from the body” that might have been farther than Van Gogh could have held the gun. In addition, historical accounts suggest that two teenage boys teased and tormented Van Gogh during the final years of his life, they said, and it’s possible that the boys shot him.

Even if this was true, it doesn’t change the way we view Van Gogh’s paintings said Barnard professor Anne Higonnet, who studies 18th and 19th century art.

“If he had committed suicide with no sign what-so-ever of any mental trouble then everyone would say, ‘Oh my heavens maybe I need to rethink all the paintings,’” Higonnet told  ”But he was a very, very mentally troubled person.”

Van Gogh had been suicidal for quite some time, she added,  and he was being treated for mental illness.

“One always wants to keep and open mind of course, but it would be quite a coincidence,” said Higonnet.

The curator of the Van Gogh Museum in the Netherlands, which gave Naifeh and Smith access to family correspondence  that had never been published before, complimented the book today, telling the Associated Press it is “great,” but adding that experts “cannot yet agree” that Van Gogh was murdered.