Almost 130 years ago, Vincent van Gogh checked himself out of the asylum at St. Remy in the south of France, caught a train to Paris [where his brother lived] and moved into a small apartment above a restaurant in Auvers. Auvers is a small satellite town in the countryside set beside the river Oise. It’s about an hour by rail from Paris.
After researching a few lines of inquiry in Portugal, I travelled to Auvers in the south of France where Vincent van Gogh set up his “studio in the south” in the famous Yellow House. It’s also the setting for a violent and bloody act, perhaps even an assault. The ear incident.
From Auvers I journey along the same tracks north as Vincent did, to Paris, past the smouldering ruin of Notre Damme, and then Auvers where Vincent died at the height of summer, at the end of July 1890. I believe he was murdered, and in June this year, the murder weapon [or suicide gun] will be auctioned off.
How much that 7 mm Lefaucheux revolver actually sells for will be an indication of whether the world believes its authentic or not. How much of what we know about the world, and history, and the famous mythology of people like Vincent van Gogh is true? I’m here to find out. Follow #LastJourney on Twitter and Instagram to keep up to speed on where I am.
Of the ten results cited above, seven refer to the word “possible” or that the weapon is “believed to be” or “thought to have [been used]”. The two stories highlighted at the bottom are more definitive. The gun that killed Van Gogh is to be auctioned. Unsurprisingly, these definitive statements are made by two websites that trade in art auctions and art auction coverage. They’re the one’s trying to talk up the auction and the object to be auctioned because there is a treasure to be made if someone takes the bait.
The Van Gogh Museum is another supporter of this theory, noting in their catalogue that “there is a strong possibility that he used it in his suicide attempt”.
To reiterate, if the gun is authentic, it will fetch a handy fortune when it goes on auction in Paris on June 19th. If it’s a fake, it may attract little if any interest, in fact, it may not even be auctioned off at all. Who decides whether the weapon is the genuine article or not? Well, it depends who you ask. If most people decide it’s the actual gun, doesn’t that make it reality?
Interestingly, many of the stories above take it as fact that whether the weapon is the real thing or not, Van Gogh killed himself. The Van Gogh Museum also takes on this narrative as beyond dispute. Yet even this aspect has recently been disputed. There is a growing chorus who claim Van Gogh was either killed accidentally or murdered by one of several handy suspects. In the 2018 Oscar-nominated film At Eternity’s Gate starring Willem Dafoe as Van Gogh, the shooting is dramatized not as a suicide but as a scuffle with local youths.
That should tell you something about the state of the mainstream suicide narrative – it’s no longer mainstream!
It makes sense to talk up the rusty relic as the real thing. Everybody wins. If it’s real, someone gets very rich and a lot of people get to talk about it. If it’s not real, well, it’s all a bit of bore really, isn’t it? The same applies to a lot of Van Gogh’s art, sketches and writing. Many of his works are repeatedly argued as authentic, and if the argument eventually sticks, someone becomes an instant millionaire. So there is a lot of incentive to turn straw into gold, to argue the case for objects as being authentic. Who is rewarded, who earns anything by arguing the opposite? All it really takes is a handy expert to give the thumbs up at the right time, to the right people, and for the media to do the rest.
In the same way, Van Gogh’s madness, ear cutting and suicide are stories that make Van Gogh’s art worth more than almost every other artist in human history. It makes the museum relevant. As such there’s an incentive to keep these stories alive. The madness, the self-inflicted ear cutting and the suicide all hold with one another, don’t they? It all adds up to a struggle making Van Gogh’s art seem worth more than it otherwise would be.
The problem is, if one undertakes a true crime analysis, it turns out there is strong reason to doubt not one, but all three narratives: the ear cutting wasn’t self-inflicted, Van Gogh wasn’t mad or depressed [poor and troubled, yes] and on the day of his death why would he go out to paint with his equipment and then commit suicide? Why not just commit suicide? Why was the gun lost and why did the painting equipment disappear if he simply shot himself somewhere and botched the job? Why, after suffering the wound did he ask doctors to remove the bullet from his stomach? Dr. Paul Gachet was his doctor. When he asked his doctor to come to his aid, why didn’t he?
Also, Van Gogh had just made a large order of paint and canvasses from his brother. This indicates the artist meant to continue his work. If he was painting more than ever, a picture a day in July, where is his suicidal impulse in all of that?
If we are to debate the question seriously, we must hold up a motive for the man to murder himself against the motive of some other man to murder him. Which one is the most convincing? I have done extensive research into this question, and expected to find the popular narrative to be the most likely story. But it’s not.
The more likely story would probably devalue the work of the world’s most famous and expensive artist in the minds of many, just as a forensic audit of the weapon would likely devalue the relic as “possibly” related to Van Gogh’s fatal gunshot wound, but probably not.
Curiously, the gun itself was “found” in the 1960’s, after Van Gogh became famous. And now the object auctioneers describe as “the most famous weapon in art history” is worth a fortune. A little serendipitous, wouldn’t you say?
An important precursor to the “madness” of Vincent van Gogh, and the murder of Van Gogh, was the infamous ear incident. When I conducted my investigation, I examined the ear incident as a crime scene. Who saw what? What motive was there [if it was self-inflicted or otherwise]. What happened in the aftermath? Who said what, why and how was the wound supposedly inflicted? What when was used? What weapon was likely used to sever an entire ear?
I was pleasantly surprised to find a lot of information on all these subjects, even a sketch of the actual wound. Incredibly, almost 130 years later we have Vincent’s own words to get a sense of his feelings about what happened, as well as not one but two portraits to get a more subtle sense about how he felt about it.
The incident took place just before the Christmas of 1888 during the last days when artists Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin lived together. A few days later Vincent van Gogh wrote to his former housemate – who by this time had skedaddled all the way back to Brittany, that trip paid in full by his patrol, Theo van Gogh [Vincent’s younger brother].
By January 1889 Paul Gauguin wanted his fencing equipment back. In his rush to abandon Vincent and the Yellow House in Arles, he left it behind. But in spite of what happened, he wanted it back. Understandably, Vincent wasn’t too chuffed about giving Gauguin his “weapons of war” back.
The full transcript of the letter – written on January 22nd or 23rd – can be read here.
Gauguin’s explanation of the incident was that Van Gogh did it to himself, and that he was mad, a claim he repeated shortly after Van Gogh’s death. He did not attend his friend’s funeral, but said – quite cruelly – that he wasn’t surprised by the suicide because he’d known all along Van Gogh was mad. And so the myth stuck…
And yet of the two artists, Gauguin was a fine one to talk about screw-loose behavior… This is him at the piano.
A number of expert art historians also believe Gauguin is the real culprit behind the ear-slicing incident, but Van Gogh, in typical self-deprecating fashion – and to preserve the art arrangement with his brother – took the rap for it.
I argue in my book The Murder of Vincent van Gogh that when he was shot – purposefully, with direct intent – a similar scenario played at as the one that did around the ear incident. As a result, a popular mythology has developed around the world’s most famous artist, one that is compelling but untrue, and less compelling than what actually happened.
Next year – 2020 – will be the 130th anniversary of the death of the great artist Vincent Van Gogh. Just in the last five years, huge swaths of the historicity of Van Gogh’s life story have been called into question, analysed and fine-tuned.
A few critical areas where we’ve seen significant shifts from the original story are in the way Van Gogh suffered a gunshot wound and died, as well as the Ear Narrative [how much ear was cut off, and the events surrounding that bloody incident].
Ironically, both these shifts apply directly to what one might call the True Crime Elements of the Van Gogh Mythology. The suicide narrative now feels more like a typical true crime scene, and the ear incident has a similar scenario now too also invoking motive, blood evidence, witnesses etc, in fact all those staples we associate with the true crime genre.
What this shows is that the history around Van Gogh is still changing, still evolving. As wildly famous as Van Gogh is today, one of the most expensive artists in the world, if you had to ask who murdered Van Gogh – and why – good luck getting a straight answers. Even expert historians can’t agree. Even the mainstream media and researchers dedicated to his life story can’t explain what really happened.
So when Willem Dafoe stepped forward for his role in At Eternity’s Gate I was looking forward to seeing the most modern rendition of the Van Gogh story; a retelling with all of the latest research spun together into something more cogent, coherent and authentic. That was the hope, the expectation.
Dafoe’s casting also meant the reach of this film would be greater, and so it was. After publishing The Murder of Vincent van Gogh, my book on the popular Dutch artist, in May 2018, I made Vincent van Gogh one of my Google alerts. It’s fair to say that I get more alerts on Van Gogh on a daily basis than for any of the other high-profile true crime cases on the list.
Around the world Van Gogh is not only popular but often top of mind. When manmade spaceships notice whirls of a certain kind on Jupiter, it reminds them of Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Van Gogh is as part and parcel of the modern zeitgeist as Christmas, the Oscars, Facebook and The Big Bang Theory. But how much of the popular mythology is even true?
If the suicide myth and the ear incident are two legs of the three-legged chair that is Van Gogh Lore, then the third leg is the myth of the man as a mad artist. In my book I investigated all three “legs”. I wanted to see how At Eternity’s Gate fared in handling these subjects.
Before dealing with the Good, Bag and Ugly of the film [ranked 6.9 on IMDb], let’s start with the name. At Eternity’s Gate is a giddy-sounding title for a rather different take by the great artist himself. Van Gogh painted various iterations of the same setup, an old man or woman bent over in despair beside a roaring hearth.
Since I knew the portent of the art, and since I’d seen the trailer, I sensed an immediate mismatch between the context of Van Gogh’s own words and sentiments [in terms of the specific “At Eternity’s Gate” artwork] and how the filmmaker was misinterpreting it.
Intuitively I was interested to watch this film but went in with low expectations. I was pleasantly surprised. The Good
The film opens with a black screen, and Dafoe talking simply, humanly, yet profoundly as Van Gogh. It rings true and elements of his opening gambit, such as “I wish they would only take me as I am”, resonate with words written in Van Gogh’s letter to his brother Theo dated [15-27 April 1882].
So it’s a good start. Using the artist’s own words [and he wrote hundreds of letters in his life] is a smart way to achieve the authentic man through the authentic voice. It’s been done before, of course, in the excellent Painted with Words film starring Benedict Cumberbatch.
The first visual of the film is jarring – appropriately – throwing the viewer into a random farm field, and the artist approaching a maid leading a flock of sheep. He approaches her and asks her if her can sketch her. She’s confused by this and so are we.
The colors are washed-out and desaturated, which suggests Van Gogh hasn’t quite found his eye on his canvas just yet, and needs to start seeing the world – well – differently.
Jump to Paris and a difficult art crowd where Van Gogh still isn’t well-known and can’t sell a damn thing. There we encounter Paul Gauguin, an artist who is better known in 1888 than Van Gogh, and who’s having better luck selling his wares to the same crowd.
Even so, the two strike up an unlikely friendship. Naturally it doesn’t do Gauguin any harm that Vincent’s brother is an art dealer.
The next jump is to a windblown house in Arles, in the south of France. It’s cold, and Van Gogh – forced to stay indoors – is getting stir crazy. He removes his shoes and we’re offered a floor eye-view of his flea bitten socks with toes poking out of holes. This is far and away the most authentic moment in the whole film, because more than painting or writing letters, Van Gogh was a rambler. Every scene he painted he walked to, and he walked a lot. When he lived in London as a youth he rambled from London to Brighton, a distance of 53 miles. On another occasion he walked over 80 miles from London to Ramsgate.
It’s also the depiction of Van Gogh doing his thing that feels real. The glint of the oils on the palette, the sound of the brush lightly scratching on the canvas. The way the white canvas begins to fill up, almost magically, with those boots on the floor.
But this is where the first signs of trouble creep in. The boots are based on reality, and the photography isn’t a bad match for the painting. The problem is the art that is created on camera looks nothing like the painting Van Gogh executed, a detail one would expect more care and consideration in a biopic about a world famous artist and how he sees the world.
Since Willem Dafoe fancies himself as something of an artist, this may be license taken [or given by the director] to give him free reign to “interpret” Van Gogh. Well, fine, to each his own but as misinterpretations go, this one isn’t little. It’s also quite vulgar. It’s doesn’t look for feel anything like a Van Gogh you’ve ever seen, and that’s a problem.
It’s a shame, because the optics and atmosphere of everything else is just about right. It’s just the most important thing, how he looks and represents his boots on the floor that are misrepresented.
As a freelance photojournalist who wrote a series of articles on artists, and went out into the field to find the landscapes they painted [including of my own great grandfather, the Dutch artist Tinus de Jongh], I found this clumsy approach to Van Gogh’s work inaccurate and thus unacceptable.
Of the “three legs” to Van Gogh’s story, At Eternity’s Gate gets the most important part right – the lore. The basic stuff. The look and feel. To be fair, that shouldn’t be hard to do. It requires simply placing the artist where we know he was, and contextualizing the art we know he painted with real places. Incredibly, At Eternity’s Gate begins this process, but leaves out all the seminal works Van Gogh painted – from Starry Night painted at the asylum of St. Remy to Wheatfield with Crows, painted just prior to his death in Auvers.
Of course, part of what the filmmaker was trying to demonstrate through his own photographic palette was the arc of Van Gogh’s psychology, and part of that arc was simply showing how the landscape [and the man] transformed and came to life, vividly and colorfully. It’s a great premise, but sadly the filmmaker executed on it poorly, that is to say, not very “artfully” or “creatively”.
An excellent artistic and creative telling of the story through Van Gogh’s art work is successfully achieved through Loving Vincent [ranked 7.9 on IMDb].
Not only is the animated version viscerally and visually authentic, it’s also narratively and factually a masterpiece. In fact it was Loving Vincent, and the detective-story-plot, that inspired me to investigate Van Gogh’s story as a possible true crime case, and it turned out it was.
Although the portrait of Van Gogh in this film has its moments, it’s not a definitive portrait, not even close. Many others have tried, many have failed, and a few have come closer, a lot closer than this film. Simon Schama’s Power of Art series [IMDb rating 8.6/10] is a credit to the Van Gogh story, even with the miscast Andy Serkins playing the tortured artist.
[vimeo 100156306 w=640 h=352]
As the Good Times reviewer Lisa Jensen put it: But for all of Schnabel’s determined technique, nothing in his movie ever quite achieves the emotional clarity of a single Van Gogh painting.
One rather has the impression the filmmaker so hastily put together his film he forgot to actually study a painting and feel the artist’s own idiosyncratic message. In other words, what we’re seeing isn’t Van Gogh but Director Julian Schnabel’s Van Gogh. The Ugly
If only Schnabel had shown us the real Van Gogh, his movie would likely have one best picture, and possibly best actor. Perhaps someday if my book is turned into a movie that will happen [hey, crazier things have happened].
For me the worst part of the film was the final third, which deals with the seminal moments of Van Gogh’s life. My impression was that Schnabel read a few newspaper articles and excitedly, feverishly sticky taped them into his script.
The ear narrative is nicely woven into the film, especially the sketch of the ear by the doctor, and the “interview” with Van Gogh post mutilation. But this is where Schnabel exposes himself for failing to figure out his own story. As the ear narrative plays out the director finds himself unable to account for it. How did it happen? Why did it happen? Ah well, we’ll leave it the viewer to figure out.
And then we’re left with the biggest mystery of all. How Van Gogh was shot, and by whom? Once again Schnabel has taken a little information [that there’s evidence the wound wasn’t self-inflicted] and then ran with it.
Once again, he finds himself unable to account for the dialogue that must have followed this shooting incident in the little room where Van Gogh suffered for over 30 hours, and then died.
Here Schnabel walks out on his own story, providing a few seconds of screen time as a way to cheat the real questions haunting Van Gogh’s final hours. It’s the ultimate cop out, and the reason this film went out with a whimper amongst critics and audience alike, despite a tsunami of press and PR, and a top notch cast.
The biggest, most glaring omissions for me in the film was the absence of the word “syphilis” in the context of Van Gogh’s mental and physical health, or lack of. His brother, who died just 6 months after Van Gogh [of syphilis] is a picture of health in this story, another indication the director simply didn’t do rudimentary research, or think logically about his story.
A runner-up to the medical aspect is Van Gogh’s reputation as skirt chaser. There is virtually zero attempt to dramatize any of Van Gogh’s infamous dalliances, and as such, it’s no surprise that at the very end Schnabel’s story collapses in on itself.
So who killed Vincent van Gogh, where and why? Great things are done by a series of small things brought together. – Vincent Van Gogh
In POST TRUTH, the 100th True Crime Rocket Science [TCRS] title, the world’s most prolific true crime author Nick van der Leek demonstrates how much we still don’t know in the Watts case. In the final chapter of the SILVER FOX trilogy the author provides a sly twist in a tale that has spanned 12 TCRS books to date. The result may shock or leave you with even more questions.
SILVER FOX III available now in paperback!
“If you are at all curious about what really happened in the Watts case, then buy this book, buy every one he has written and you will get as close as humanly possible to understanding the killer and his victims.”- Kathleen Hewtson. Purchase the very highly rated and reviewed SILVER TRILOGY – POST TRUTH COMING SOON.
TCRS MERCH available now – just in time for Christmas!
Book 5 – ALL NEW! “I have thoroughly enjoyed this audiobook…” – Connie Lukens. Drilling Through Discovery Complete Audiobook
Read the entire 9-Part TWO FACE series, the most definitive book series covering the Chris Watts Case
Visit the TCRS Archive of 100 Books dealing with all the world’s most high-profile true crime cases.
Join the TCRS Community on Patreon for as little as $1 per month. Multiple daily posts, interesting discussions, amazing audiobooks narrated by the author, ongoing series and powerful, informative weekly podcasts.
Subscribe to the Growing TCRS YouTube Channel
Book 4 in the TWO FACE series, one of the best reviewed, is available now in paperback!
“Book 4 in the K9 series is a must read for those who enjoy well researched and detailed crime narratives. The author does a remarkable job of bringing to life the cold dark horror that is Chris Watts throughout the narrative but especially on the morning in the aftermath of the murders. Chris’s actions are connected by Nick van der Leek’s eloquent use of a timeline to reveal a motive.”